Updated at 6:10 p.m. ET
The U.S. has ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, in what China called an "unprecedented escalation."
In a statement early Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: "We have directed the closure of [People's Republic of China] Consulate General Houston, in order to protect American intellectual property and American's (sic) private information."
China's foreign ministry said it had been given notice on Wednesday to restrict all events at its consulate in Houston and to move out all its employees by July 24.
Hours earlier, local Houston media began reporting that employees at the Chinese consulate in the city were burning documents in the consulate courtyard.
Beijing alleged the U.S. confiscated and opened Chinese diplomatic mail pouches in October and June. The Vienna Convention, an international treaty to which the U.S. and China are parties which governs diplomatic operations, prohibits diplomatic personnel and pouches from being searched.
"If we compare the two [countries], it is only too evident which is engaged in interference, infiltration and confrontation," Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday.
The announcement comes one day after the Justice Department indicted two Chinese hackers on charges of trying to steal research into a coronavirus vaccine.
The closure of the consulate piles strain on already deteriorating relations between the world's top two economies.
On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy said in a statement the United States' "willful and reckless stigmatization and fanning up of hatred" against China has had negative consequences for its diplomatic missions in America.
"The Chinese Embassy in the US has received threats to the safety and security of Chinese diplomatic missions and personnel more than once," it said without elaborating.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted: "As a result of smears & hatred fanned up by the #US gov, the Chinese embassy has received #bomb & #DeathThreats."
Announcing the order to close China's Houston consulate, Ortagus also invoked the Vienna Convention.
"The Vienna Convention," she said, "states diplomats must 'respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State' and 'have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.'
"The United States will not tolerate the PRC's violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior," Ortagus said in the statement.
China immediately raised the prospect of retaliation. The foreign ministry spokesman called on the U.S. to reverse its decision on the consulate, but said, "Should [the U.S.] insist on going down this wrong path, China will react with firm countermeasures."
Chinese state tabloid the Global Times, which often serves as a conduit for statements of official policy, suggested on Twitter that Beijing could retaliate by shutting down the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong.
The U.S. also operates consulates in Shenyang, Chengdu, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou. China operates consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, in addition to Houston.
Earlier this month, the U.S. indefinitely delayed the return of many of its diplomats to China because of disagreements over China's COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements, also citing the Vienna Convention.
Earlier this month, the U.S. sanctioned several elite Chinese Communist Party members for their involvement in orchestrating the detention and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for Beijing's growing control over Hong Kong. China responded by banning several American lawmakers from traveling to China.
The New York Times quoted David Stilwell, head of policy for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department, as saying the Houston consulate was "at the epicenter" of research theft by the Chinese military in the United States.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. has ordered China to close down its consulate in Houston, Texas, by Friday, and Beijing is now threatening retaliation over what it calls a, quote, "unprecedented escalation" of tensions. NPR's Emily Feng is covering this from Beijing. Good morning, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Has either country given an explanation for why the Chinese consulate is being closed?
FENG: No. And we only got a hint that something was up when, late Tuesday night, U.S. time, local Houston media began reporting that Chinese employees at the consulate there appeared to be burning documents in the consulate's courtyard in metal barrels. And then a few hours later, China's foreign ministry here in Beijing confirmed the U.S. had, quote, "abruptly demanded" they close down the consulate there, move all of its employees out by this Friday. So they were given about 72 hours' notice to do so.
Beijing also alleges the U.S. confiscated and opened Chinese diplomatic mail pouches this past October and June, which - according to an international treaty called the Vienna Convention, to which the U.S. and China are party to - that is not allowed. You cannot search diplomatic personnel and pouches. And this is what gives diplomats immunity in the countries in which they serve.
The U.S. has told NPR that the consulate was shut down, quote, "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information." And the State Department also said that this Vienna Convention also requires foreign missions to not interfere in internal affairs of the country in which they're based. So neither country has given a satisfactory explanation, but they've hinted at some kind of state interference on both sides.
MARTIN: Wow. So I mentioned in the intro that China is threatening to retaliate. What form could that take?
FENG: China's Foreign Ministry did not specify what that retaliation could look like, but a state newspaper, which in the past has signaled China's policy direction, said on Twitter today that China was likely going to shut down a U.S. consulate, likely in Hong Kong. The U.S. also runs consulates in six other cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan, which could also be targets. I should mention, though, that the U.S. consulate in Wuhan is still closed because of the pandemic, and many other consulates around China are running on skeleton staff because the U.S. and China have not been able to agree on the conditions under which U.S. diplomats return to China.
MARTIN: I mean, where does this leave the relationship? There's already been all of this tension between the U.S. and China - sanctions that the U.S. has put on Chinese officials over Hong Kong and Chinese human rights abuses and then corresponding sanctions on U.S. lawmakers. I mean, what does this consulate closure portend for the relationship?
FENG: It's extremely serious. It may be even more serious than sanctions because, as contentious as the U.S.-China relationship had become this year, we at least had diplomats and officials from both countries who were on the ground and who were meeting and talking to each other. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic began to complicate that because international travel shut down, and many U.S. diplomats were evacuated out of China, and they have not returned. But now we have the outright removal of a major Chinese consulate in the U.S. and the threatened removal of an American consulate.
So we are seeing a decoupling in the actual foreign policy apparatus between the two countries. And this suggests that we'll have less interaction and more conflict between the two governments because consulates are a base for diplomats to understand policy on the ground, to speak to people and to conduct outreach, to promote understanding of each other's domestic policies. Without them, the two countries understand far less about each other.
FENG: Today's move implicitly signals the U.S. and soon China...
FENG: ...Just do not see official dialogue as productive.
MARTIN: NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.