Staff leaving U.S. Chengdu consulate under high security as deadline looms

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - Staff of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu made final efforts to clear the premises on Sunday as security remained tight outside, ahead of a Monday closure ordered by Beijing as China-U.S. relations continue to worsen.

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A mini tourist atmosphere prevailed outside the facility on a tree-lined street on a hot Sunday, as onlookers shared sidewalk space with dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police opposite the entrance.

Consulate closures in Houston and Chengdu have escalated a sharp deterioration in ties between the world’s two biggest economies, which were already their worst in decades amid disputes over trade and technology, the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its clampdown on Hong Kong.

Police asked people to move on when crowds formed outside the consulate, as onlookers took photos and videos of what they expected would be the last time to see the compound in U.S. hands. The street was closed to traffic, except for consular or police vehicles let through by police.

China on Friday ordered the closure of the Chengdu consulate in the southwestern provide of Sichuan. That means an evacuation deadline of 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Monday, according to the editor of a state-run tabloid.

In Houston on Friday a group of men accompanied by aU.S. State Department official were seen forcing open a door atthe Chinese consulate, shortly after the U.S. closure order took effect for a facility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft”.

A coach that had been on the Chengdu consulate premises on Saturday left on Sunday morning. It was unclear who or what was inside. Since Friday, staff have been seen coming and going, including at least one with a suitcase. Removal vans entered and left on Saturday and Sunday.

“China’s response was reciprocal,” said a 63-year-old local resident who gave only his surname, Yang. The situation “is quite regrettable.”

On the Chengdu police account on Weibo, similar to Twitter, some netizens were asking the authorities to be lenient toward to a man who lit a firework outside the consulate Friday.

“I believe our country is so powerful, so it has the ability to handle it properly, and provide me with enough safety,” said a 25-year-old finance worker surnamed Zhao when she passed by the consulate.

Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Writing by Pei Li; Editing by William Mallard