China said in Monday it had taken possession of the US consulate in Chengdu hours after the US flag outside the building was lowered, following a Chinese order for the US to leave the building in response to the US move to evict Beijing from its consulate in Houston.
Chinese state broadcaster CGTN said the flag was lowered on the building at about 6:18am local time on Monday (22:48 GMT on Sunday).
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed in a social media post that the consulate in southwestern Sixhuan province had been closed a few hours later.
“At 10am on July 27th according to the Chinese side’s request, the US consulate was closed,” the ministry said. “Afterwards, Chinese authorities entered through the front entrance and took it over.”
The consulate closures are a sharp escalation of the disputes between the two countries, already damaged by disagreements over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, its new security law in Hong Kong, the situation in Xinjiang, and trade and technology.
The deadline for the Americans to exit Chengdu has been unclear, but the Chinese consulate in Houston in the US state of Texas was given 72 hours to close after the original order was made.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, who is in Chengdu, said police closed the street to the consulate and erected barricades shortly after the flag was lowered.
The embassy had a couple of hundred staff and Yu said that China had said some were working “inconsistent with their capacity”.
Local residents gathered at the street to watch the unfolding events as security personnel, as well as four people clad in hazard suits were seen walking towards the building shortly before 10.30am (02:30 GMT).
The consulate worked closely with businesses in Chongqing and is also a gateway to the far western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where the UN estimates about a million ethnic Uighurs are being held in what China says are vocational skills training camps.
The consulate was also thrust into the spotlight in 2012 when then police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge expressing fears for his safety after his investigation into the death of Neil Heywood, a British business consultant. The meeting led to the downfall of rising star Bo Xilai whose wife was later convicted of Heywood’s murder.
Over the weekend, the US insignia was removed from the front of the consulate, and removal vans were seen coming and going. The street was closed to traffic, except for consular or police vehicles allowed through by police.
Beijing says closing the Chengdu consulate was a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States”, and has alleged that staff at the diplomatic mission endangered China’s security and interests.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Chinese consulate in Houston was “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft”. (Al Jazeera and News Agencies)