Current Events

Chinese Consul General Deflects On Espionage Accusations After Consulate Shutdown

Workers at China's consulate in Houston were seen loading up a U-Haul and a white van Wednesday night after the U.S. State Department ordered the consulate to close by Friday.
Workers at China's consulate in Houston were seen loading up a U-Haul and a white van Wednesday night after the U.S. State Department ordered the consulate to close by Friday. Photo by Kate McLean

New details about the U.S. State Department’s rationale for ordering the closure of China’s consulate in Houston have emerged, while China’s top diplomat in Houston has expressed his frustration with accusations of espionage levied against his country.

Throughout the day Wednesday and late into the night, workers at the local consulate located on Montrose Boulevard were seen loading a U-Haul moving van and a white SUV with consulate license plates with black trash bags, in a scramble to empty out the building by 4 p.m. Friday as required by the State Department’s eviction order.

In an interview with The New York Times, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell alleged that China’s Houston consulate was at the heart of a widespread illegal U.S. research theft operation, and claimed that the Houston consulate had engaged in “subversive behavior” in the past.

Contrary to Stilwell’s claim that China’s Houston consulate was responsible for the bulk of the country’s American espionage efforts, Steven Lewis, who studies China at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told the Houston Chronicle that “There doesn’t seem to be any more activity here than anywhere else” based on his research.

The only specific example of such subversive activity Stilwell cited to the Times was that consul general Cai Wei, who runs the Houston consulate, was allegedly caught with two other diplomats using false identification to escort Chinese travelers onto a charter flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport back on May 31. The Times reported Stilwell also claimed — without evidence — that China's attempted science research data thefts have increased in the past six months, which he said might be related to coronavirus vaccine development.

The Times also referenced a private memo put together by unnamed U.S. law enforcement officials that described FBI investigations on Chinese espionage activities allegedly based out of Houston’s consulate, including investigations about illegal transfer of medical research and other sensitive info, recruitment plans to try and persuade over 50 academics and researchers in the area to give their research data to China and alleged coercion plots to convince Chinese citizens in America whom the Chinese government considers to be fugitives to come back to China.

Wei spoke with ABC13’s Miya Shay in a Wednesday evening interview, during which he denied the accusation about providing false identifying information for his companions at IAH airport in May. Wei claimed that he and his colleagues were simply escorting Chinese students onto a chartered airplane to help them get back home to China.

He also didn't deny that his staff burned documents in the consulate courtyard, and claimed that it was standard diplomatic procedure to burn documents when permanently vacating a foreign post.

When it came to broader accusations of espionage and intellectual property theft based out of the Houston consulate, Wei was careful not to say the State Department was lying. Instead, he argued that China should be presumed innocent unless the U.S. government is able to provide explicit proof of wrongdoing to the public.

“Whether you are a top diplomat or a very junior diplomat, the first lesson is you have to speak the truth, you have to speak with facts,” Wei said.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards