Closing US consulate leaves a hole in Chengdu’s social landscape and a risk to investment in southwest China

·7-min read

Six years after the People’s Republic of China and the United States commenced normal diplomatic relations, the US opened a consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu – a further step towards strengthening relations during their honeymoon period in the 1980s.

Back then, US vice-president George Bush flew to Chengdu to open the fourth US consulate in China.

Thirty-five years later, the Chengdu consulate, which once represented goodwill and friendship between the two countries, was ordered to close by Beijing in retaliation for the US ordering the Chinese consulate in Houston to close.

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For many local people the consulate is a landmark, a part of the city and a window on America and the outside world. Its sudden closure means inconvenience for them in many ways. Applying for visas, studying or medical treatment in the US will be affected and there will be fewer communications with American counterparts. More importantly, it means the loss of business opportunities and an unknown future.

“The closure of the consulates [in China and the US] means the end of the Chinese and American friendship and that makes many people feel sad,” said Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert based in Beijing.

Jeff Moon, who was the US consul general in Chengdu from 2003 to 2006 and now heads a China-focused consultancy, China Moon Strategies, said the political effect was that this development signalled a deteriorating bilateral relationship and might accelerate the decoupling of China and the US.

Houston consulate offices a long-time landmark of US-China relations

“I am very sad that the relationship developed over the past four decades has been torn apart in just a few days,” he said, adding that closing the Chengdu consulate served the interests of neither China nor the US.

“A part of the city”

Zhang Ying went to Chengdu in 1989. After studying at university for four years, she chose to stay there. For her, the consulate has become a natural feature of the city.

“When I went to Chengdu, the consulate was there, so I felt it should be there. I felt sad for not having it any more,” the 50-year-old resident said.

Three decades later, she could still recall the moments when students gathered to watch movies in the consulate, or when she accompanied her friend to apply for visas in the 1990s when there were few applicants.

The consulate was originally located at a hotel. In 1993, it was moved to the current facility in the south of the city centre, ushering in a business boom in the district.

A name plaque is removed from the US consulate in Chengdu. Photo: Simon Song
A name plaque is removed from the US consulate in Chengdu. Photo: Simon Song

Chengdu is a metropolis with 16 million people and six ring roads now, but in the early 1990s, there was only one ring road and the consulate was outside it.

US consulate in Chengdu at centre of two key moments in China’s history

A few years later, in the mid-1990s, the neighbourhoods near the consulate became the earliest modern communities in Chengdu and the area was named “international southern city” – for the atmosphere it had, said Tang Jianguang, a 50-year-old resident in Chengdu.

Several community compounds nearby were the earliest luxury communities in Chengdu, he added. Adjacent to the consulate and Sichuan University, bars quickly opened, as well as the Bookworm – a cafe and hang-out for socialising that closed in 2019.

“The consulate’s relationship with Chengdu is very close,” said Tang. “It’s a part of Chengdu and it’s a landmark of the city.”

Why did the consulate open in Chengdu?

The Chengdu consular district covers the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, as well as the Tibet autonomous region and the municipality of Chongqing, with over 200 million people in total – about two thirds of the population of the US.

“There are multiple reasons to open a consulate in Chengdu and one of them is the strategic significance,” said Pang Zhongying.

“Tibet has always been on the US and UK’s agenda and the Chengdu consulate is the closest Washington is to Tibet.”

Geographically, the US needed to have a consulate in western China and Chengdu was a natural choice because of its location, population, economy and development potential, said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University.

Impacts of the closure

Zhang Ying’s daughter will graduate from high school in the US next year. Though the teenager had wished to study at university in the US, she was contemplating moving to Canada because of the deteriorating relationship between China and the US.

“We would suggest that she apply for universities in Canada because we were very pessimistic about China-US relations,” Zhang said. “The most intense conflict has just begun and you can’t see the future.

“And the impact on individuals like us is that our choices are limited. We feel powerless and we can only take what comes our way,” she said.

Shen Yiming, a 17-year-old student in Chengdu, said the closure meant he would have to apply for a visa in Guangzhou or Shanghai if he wanted to study in the US.

It is also a loss in his day-to-day life because two years ago the stepfather of one of his good friends had started a band with Tzu-i Chuang, wife of the US consul general in Chengdu, and he used to watch their performances.

“I’ve met the consul general and his wife, though we’ve never talked. But for me, they are the people I know, so I feel sad to see them leaving,” Shen said.

Shen said he also felt bad after reading Tzu-i Chuang’s Weibo posts about her experiences during Covid-19 and the impact of the mission’s closure, “because [the experiences] were so real”.

But Taiwanese-born Chuang was targeted on social media, with people threatening her or accusing her of being a spy and an activist supporting Taiwan independence.

Thousands gather to see closure of US consulate in Chengdu

Moreover, people worried that the mission’s closure foreshadowed greater uncertainty for foreign investment and business opportunities in the region.

By the end of 2018, Chengdu has attracted 285 of the top 500 companies worldwide, according to local authorities. Reports by the American Chamber of Commerce in southwest China show that since 2008, Chengdu has been the priority choice for investment among second-tier cities, Benjamin Wang, chairman of the chamber told a local television network in March.

The US flag was lowered at the consulate on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE
The US flag was lowered at the consulate on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Wang pointed out that China’s “go west” campaign – a concerted push by Beijing building on the Western Development strategy launched over 20 years ago to accelerate economic and social development of the western provinces – had added new impetus to Chengdu’s development. Wang said it was attracting young talent and capital to the region and helping open up the domestic market.

However, the increased business risk might push foreign companies away, experts said.

“The economic effect is that foreign companies will assess that increased political risk which is damaging the overall business environment,” Jeff Moon said.

“That means that foreign companies already in China will not immediately leave … but the increased business risk will cause companies to defer plans to bring new ventures to the region, delay existing plans to deepen commitments, and to look elsewhere for business opportunities,” he said.

“This impact cannot be measured precisely, but it is real and will be felt in southwest China.”

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