Should the Chinese Consulate return to Houston?


Spy charges, smoke rising from burnt documents in a courtyard, one superpower evicting another from its apartment building on Montrose Boulevard – it’s been just over a year since Houston was propelled into international spotlight on the 23rd June 2020, when the State Department closed the Consulate of the People’s Republic of China.

Was it the right thing to do? Should the Biden administration offer to reopen it, as long as China reopens the US consulate in Chengdu, which it closed in retaliation? And above all, if the consulate is reopened, should Houstonians adopt a new posture – less naive and more suspicious – or return to “business as usual” in the face of Chinese government officials?

I believe the answer to the last question is yes. From my observation, Houston civil society failed to see that China’s interests are not always aligned with ours, which even the obvious benefits of a closer working relationship with a major trading partner. should not have allowed us to forget. But before we take a closer look, it’s worth revisiting last year’s decision and its aftermath.

Evidence suggests that the official justification for closing the Houston Consulate – large-scale espionage – was overstated. Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, called the PRC Consulate in Houston a “center of malicious activity”, particularly industrial espionage, a claim repeated by many Trump administration officials and candidates for election. presidency of Congress, but full details of the extent of such “malicious activity” have never been made public. The Chinese Initiative of the Ministry of Justice also did not reveal exceptionally high levels of espionage in our region: of the 84 cases mentioned by the Ministry of Justice in the past three years and in the six consular regions. Chinese in the United States, only 11 are in the Houston consulate. region, and of these only three were thefts of trade secrets or purchases of advanced technologies.

In my own conversations with US diplomatic and security officials, it has been privately explained to me that although the PRC has engaged in espionage in all of its consulates – all technically sophisticated powers do – if there is had an epicenter of such industrial espionage from the Chinese government, it would surely be at the Consulate in San Francisco, near Silicon Valley, or in the consulates in New York or Boston, where there are more companies and d ‘universities conducting advanced research only in the nine states and territories served by the PRC Consulate in Houston. The high number of Justice Department indictments in the Northeast and West Coast certainly supports this conclusion.

An official explained it to me this way: the Houston consulate was closed because it was the least important, in order not to start too quickly a diplomatic war with China, and because the state delegations of our region in Congress and our state governments not oppose its closure, despite the fact that it puts our state economies at a disadvantage in terms of future exports to China. In 2017, before Trump’s trade war reduced trade between the two countries, China was the third-largest goods export market ($ 15.6 billion) for Texas, after Mexico and Canada, and in 2016, China was the second largest services export market ($ 4.3 billion), after UK estimates show some 75,000 jobs in Texas, mostly in the oil, gas and semi-public sectors. – drivers, as well as in the education, royalty and travel services sectors, depended on the Chinese market.

Whether or not closing the Houston Consulate is the right thing to do in 2020, Texas and neighboring states must now bear the economic consequences of the lack of visa services, legal services, and official events promoting the United States. international trade that facilitate trade between our region and the world’s second economy. This is especially important to consider as it is likely that trade in the near future will depend on trade between countries with higher vaccination rates – the United States, Japan and OECD countries, but also China. – and during the Trump administration’s internal trade war with China and the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Many of our trading partners in Asia have signed free trade agreements with each other, and increasingly with China .

As the global economy shifts into high gear again, why should Texas and the South be left behind without the reopening of the PRC Consulate in Houston and the US Consulate in Chengdu, one of China’s regions? the fastest growing? It is also important to consider the human cost of a lack of nearby consular representation. Tens of thousands of Chinese students and citizens living in the former Houston consular area – some trapped by the pandemic – have been denied support from their government, and in turn, thousands of Americans. living in southwest China were denied consular access nearby. State Department assistance, including representation in the event of arrest or detention.

But if we are to allow the reopening of the Chinese consulate in Houston, should we go back to “business as usual” in our relations with Chinese government officials? I think we should take this reset and think about whether Houston’s past relationship with Chinese consular officials was beneficial and mutually respectful. The oversight of Chinese consular officials is stepped up elsewhere in America and is also expected to take place at a reopened consulate in Houston. In addition, Houston civil society – our civic groups, our professional associations, our philanthropic foundations, our businesses, our universities and our cultural institutions – must have a critically important public debate among us on how we should welcome any potential return from the Chinese government. representatives.

I believe history shows that many in our community viewed Chinese consular officials without asking questions as a friend or partner, when in fact they should have been viewed more soberly as a competitor who might also be an enemy. About a decade ago, when I was leaving a fundraiser for Chinese community work and cultural exchanges run by the Chinese Consulate, I met the Education Consul and asked her what she thought of the event. Instead of thanking me for participating, she berated me, asking why my employer, a private university think tank, hadn’t “bought a table” to donate to their cause. I informed her that we have a policy against buying tables at fundraisers, and she laughed and turned away. I gave up, but wanted to ask him, “American citizens pay taxes to support the public diplomacy of our consulates in China, why can’t Chinese citizens support the public diplomacy of your government?”

I had another conversation over five years ago with a Chinese international relations scholar at a major Chinese university, which was even more revealing about how the Chinese government viewed its public diplomacy in cities like Houston. . We were talking about the effectiveness of the American centers in the universities in China and the Confucius institutes in the American universities, and they said that they understood why the American government opposes the influence of the Chinese government in America, but does not. did not understand why American civil society welcomed the leaders of their party. with so much enthusiasm. “Didn’t the Houston Society just hold a gala for our visiting Communist Party Politburo member responsible for education, charging $ 250 per seat to attend?” they said incredulously. “Just to listen to a speech written by the Central Propaganda Bureau?” I didn’t get a good explanation in response, because there isn’t one.

When I first went to China to teach English in the 1980s, just a few years after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s historic trip to Houston and the normalization of relations in 1979, Americans and Chinese were so worried. missteps and unintended consequences that they studiously stuck to a clear guiding principle: reciprocity. Since then, it has become very clear that the liberal democratic order and civil society of America, which thrive on openness, freedom of speech and private initiative, have been much more permissive towards of the influence of the Chinese government that the Chinese Communist Party would not allow American diplomats and citizens to be in China.

With the brutal crackdown on Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic minorities and religious minorities in China, the assault on Hong Kong civil society and the corrosion of its independent judiciary, and the Chinese government’s obstruction of investigations into the origins of COVID , his diplomats will have a lot to explain to do if they are allowed to return. Why should Chinese state-owned enterprises have access to U.S. capital markets to continue to carry out these inhuman and immoral policies? Houston civil society should not stop there, of course, and treat representatives of other authoritarian regimes and dictatorships that have consulates in Houston with the same contempt. Finally, given America’s own history of racism and violence, Houston civil society should vigorously oppose the connection between the Chinese government’s crimes and the lives of Chinese and American people. ordinary and innocent Asian descent living in Houston. President Donald Trump has encouraged anti-Chinese hatred – stoking the embers of bigotry since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – and President Joe Biden and Congress responded by signing the Hate Crimes Act to combat the increasing attacks against Asian Americans in particular.

The reopening of the Chinese Consulate in Houston and the US Consulate in Chengdu would clearly help thousands of ordinary American and Chinese citizens who are just trying to live their lives and go about their private business, and the reopening would also help our Texas economy to compete with. other regions in America exporting to China in the future, but we have to ask ourselves how to have a sober and mutually respectful engagement with the Chinese officials in Houston, especially if they return to the Montrose. We should start by asking ourselves whether or not we are allowing Chinese diplomats to have more access to American society than the Chinese government allows our diplomats, and our citizens, academics and businessmen, to take advantage of. China.

Lewis is the CV Starr Transnational China Fellow at the Baker Institute at Rice University.


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