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Chinese gather in Chengdu to watch American diplomats evacuate

By BLOOMBERG NEWS Published: July 25, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Hundreds of people gathered outside the U.S. consulate in Chengdu on Saturday as American employees prepared to leave after China ordered the shutdown of the mission.

The U.S. emblem was removed from the building, but the American flag remained near the entrance. Police set up barricades and cut off traffic from the street in front of the building on Saturday, while dozens of security officers urged onlookers to keep moving after taking pictures and videos.

The closure is the latest escalation in tensions between the world's two biggest economies, a move announced after the Trump administration ordered the shuttering of the Chinese consulate in Houston. That decision followed years of frustration about criminal and covert activity directed by Beijing to steal trade secrets and carry out malign influence operations across the U.S., according to three Trump administration officials who briefed reporters on Friday.

China rejected the U.S. accusations that its consulate was a central hub of espionage, and retaliated on Friday by ordering the shutdown of the Chengdu outpost, key for watching events in Tibet, within 72 hours.

One of the spectators in Chengdu, who gave his surname as Wang, said he traveled two and a half hours by train to see the closure in person.

"There are so many citizens here to witness it, because people love our country and are here to support the government's decision," the 22-year-old said. "China wants peaceful development and a peaceful relationship with the U.S., but the U.S. is destroying it."

Anti-American sentiment has grown in China as the Trump administration takes an increasingly combative approach toward Beijing, with both sides in conflict over issues from trade to the coronavirus. U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Beijing of causing the Covid-19 global outbreak and said that his "phase one" trade deal meant "much less" to him in the wake of the pandemic.

Still, the vast majority of people who gathered outside the consulate on Saturday were more curious than outraged. Many snapped selfies or live-streamed on their mobile phones as trucks belonging to moving companies entered and left the building. Police acted to break up the crowd from time to time.

"I think many people came here to take photos and videos to post on Douyin," said a 25-year-old woman who gave her last name as Guo, referring to the Chinese version of TikTok. "But I don't know if the videos will be banned on the Chinese Internet soon."

At one point, a man in the crowd attempted to unfurl a banner, but was swiftly tackled and detained by police.

Chinese state media has framed the growing conflict with the U.S. as a series of unprovoked attacks, stoking nationalism. There is a risk that encouraging people to express too much public anger could spill over into other kinds of unrest.

In 1999, Chinese protesters staged violent demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing, infuriated by the deadly NATO bombing of its embassy in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia at the time.

On social media, live-streaming by China's state broadcaster of the entrance of the U.S. consulate's entrance was viewed nearly 50 million times on Twitter-like Weibo. "China closes U.S. consulate in Chengdu" was one of the most popular topics on the site, with about 1.79 billion views.

Some Chengdu residents were drawn by the commotion but lamented the deterioration in bilateral relations.

"I heard about the news and came over after lunch to see what's going on," said one resident, whose last name is Gan. "I know there are a lot angry and nationalistic speeches online but they are not helping. It's not sensible to just blame each other without thinking what could go wrong."

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