There are three reasons why we should care about President Trump ordering China’s consulate in Houston, Texas, to close by Friday.
First, China is America’s most significant long-term foreign threat. Second, this action will have repercussions far beyond the diplomatic cocktail party circuit. Third, while Trump may have done the right thing, he may have done it for the wrong reasons.
FBI Director Chris Wray, in a July 7 speech to the Hudson Institute, signaled that the administration was planning something big against the People’s Republic of China when he declared that country to be “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality… and by extension, to our national security.” Wray went on to provide what he called, “more detail on the Chinese threat than the FBI has ever presented in an open forum.” In a prescient prequel, Wray teased, “This threat is so significant that the attorney general and secretary of state will also be addressing a lot of these issues in the next few weeks.” Clearly, Wray was in on the secret—a diplomatic hammer would soon drop. Indeed it did, on the PRC’s large and active Houston consulate.
The Chinese consulate in Houston was its first inside the United States. Its area of responsibility covers a broad swath of the southern states. Among its personnel are military and civilian intelligence collectors, some operating covertly under the cover of some other diplomatic title. As with almost any other foreign diplomatic establishment, there is more going on than just the processing of visas for American travelers and the renewal of passports for their own citizens. In fact, the FBI in Houston has been unraveling a network of Chinese government penetrations within the local medical research community. Further, America’s oil and gas technology and research has long been targeted by the Chinese intelligence services, specifically in the Houston area.
But the threat ranges far beyond the Houston area. In his Hudson Institute speech, Director Wray noted that the FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence investigation about every 10 hours. If you’re an American adult, chances are that China has stolen your personal data during one or all of a host of hacks into Equifax, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the hospitality industry and other databases. If you work in any one of hundreds of industries targeted by China, it’s more likely than not that your company’s trade secrets are now in the hands of our adversary. China has proven itself to be a particularly bad actor on the global stage over the course of the last few years. Just this week, the US accused Chinese hackers of trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research. And, China’s efforts to wield power over Hong Kong, and their inhumane treatment of ethnic Uighurs merit worldwide condemnation.
Understandably, China is not happy about the closure of its Houston hub. The Chinese government called the move an “unprecedented escalation” and pledged to “react with firm countermeasures” It’s quite likely we’ll see an equal diplomatic response with a potential closing of a U.S. consulate or the forced departure of certain American diplomats from China. But, this escalation will almost certainly go beyond diplomatic circles. Our trade with China, already the subject of heated negotiations, may well be impacted, and global markets may reflect the increased tensions. Importantly, in the midst of a global pandemic, when we need access to whatever China knows about the origins of COVID-19, and access to their research on a possible vaccine, we are now less likely than ever to get what we need.
When it comes to a tough stance on China, President Trump may have made the right move, but for all the wrong reasons. Building China up as an external monster for him to battle seems to fit the desired Trump narrative heading into November. Depicting China as the ultimate external bad guy, blaming them repeatedly for the virus, and hinting that it’s “China, not Russia” that may interfere with mail-in ballots in our next election, provides a common enemy to coalesce around. Trump needs something or someone to distract from his own lack of leadership. Back in March, Trump stated that he was now a “war time president” in the context of battling the coronavirus. More recently, his deployment of DHS agents in a kind of secret police capacity into Portland, and now other cities, allows him to posture as a commander in chief warring against the “liberal MOB” within what he calls Democrat-controlled cities. A president in search of a war now has his external and internal adversaries.