ConGen Chengdu’s American staff thanked the city of Chengdu on the final day of consulate operations, July 27, 2020. Photo by ConGen Chengdu
By Jim Mullinax
As dawn rose over the western Chinese city of Chengdu, July 27, 2020, a dozen American diplomats stood at attention on the steps of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu (ConGen Chengdu) as members of the Marine Security Guard detachment lowered the flag, marking the suspension of the United States’ physical presence in Southwest China.
Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush congratulate staff at the opening of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, 1985. Photo courtesy of ConGen Chengdu
America’s legacy in Southwest China is a rich one, with American adventurers, missionaries, and educators all playing a role in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries—a legacy enriched by the heroism of the Flying Tigers and General Stilwell during World War II. ConGen Chengdu was formally established in 1985 and supported U.S. interests in Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet—a consular district of 200 million people. U.S. diplomats in Chengdu bore witness to the Chinese crackdown on students and workers following the Tiananmen Square incident. In 1999, ConGen Chengdu was attacked by crowds angry about the accidental bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy. Protestors set the consul general’s residence on fire to show their displeasure. In 2012, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun fled to ConGen Chengdu, where he shared tales of corruption and murder reaching into the highest ranks of the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to claim asylum. Wang eventually left the consulate under armed Chinese guard. However, his accusations led to the fall of Xi Jinping’s most powerful rival, sparking a nationwide anti-corruption and loyalty campaign, and cemented Xi’s hold on power.
By 2020, ConGen Chengdu was home to 200 Americans and locally employed staff and multiple agencies promoting U.S. exports, issuing visas, serving a growing American community, reporting on regional issues, and sharing U.S. values with Chinese partners. Chinese officials constantly sought to restrict the consulate’s operations, fearing that outside influences threatened the party’s monopoly on information. Nevertheless, American diplomats in Chengdu found creative ways to build ties with like-minded partners, inform U.S. policymakers, and serve American interests.
As China emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in June, anti-foreigner sentiment in China grew, spurred by communist party efforts to deflect blame from its own failings in response to the outbreak. ConGen Chengdu’s leadership team agreed it was time to start preparing for the possibility of civil unrest directed at the facilities or staff. The Regional Security Office led the team in a crisis management exercise designed around just such a scenario. The consulate tested its emergency communications platforms and protocols, practiced destruction drills, and used the exercise to review its alternate command center condition.
While preparing for the worst, the consulate staff was still working hard to support Mission China goals, even with a large percentage of American staff and families away from post due to the pandemic. Some joked that the consulate’s skeleton staff was missing several bones, but it was inspiring how much the staff was still able to accomplish. There was excitement and relief when a charter flight was scheduled to bring staff and families back in late July, along with hope the consulate might be on its way to more normal operations.
When the announcement came that the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Houston would be closed, Mission China staff suspected that Beijing would likely retaliate against a U.S. post. Though ConGen Chengdu staff hoped they were wrong, they knew that their consulate could be the target of that retaliation.
Video by Tony Motisi, Zach Alger and Embassy Beijing’s Public Affairs staff
On the morning of July 24, there was an unusually large police presence on the streets around the consulate. The PRC Foreign Ministry called the deputy chief of mission later that morning to inform him the United States had to vacate ConGen Chengdu within 72 hours and all American staff had to depart the country within 30 days. Post held an emergency meeting of all staff to break the news. Shock and tears quickly gave way to determination to spend the remaining time doing everything to secure the consulate and suspend operations in as dignified a manner as possible. No one was more determined than the local staff. Many of them had worked at the consulate for more than two decades. Despite fears for their safety and uncertainty about their future, they put their emotions aside and helped prepare the consulate for the suspension.
Within minutes of the announcement, crowds began to gather outside the consulate. Most were just curious, though some shouted anti-American slogans, and a few risked expressing their shock and disappointment. Surveillance equipment appeared almost instantly on the buildings surrounding the consulate, and the video feed was livestreamed across China.
With limited American staff, the consulate sent out a call for reinforcements. All of Mission China pitched in, racing to Chengdu to help, along with Diplomatic Security Service special agents from Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang and couriers and information technology experts from Beijing. The team worked through the night, preparing to salvage as much equipment as possible. Despite assurances of cooperation, PRC authorities constantly sought to thwart these efforts. Police blocked the heavy equipment and moving vans needed to prepare for departure, requiring midnight calls to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By dawn the following Monday, most staff could count the hours of sleep they’d had over the past three days in single digits, but the work was done. As the Marines lowered and folded the flag with care and precision, it was difficult not to reflect on what the consulate had achieved in Chengdu and who would be left behind: the dedicated local staff, who had always been essential to operations; American schools, businesses, and citizens; and the consulate’s friends and partners in the local community. They also thought of their American colleagues: those standing in front of the empty flagpole, those who were evacuated and sat in quarantine or back in the United States, and those who served in Chengdu over the past 35 years.
The suspension of operations at the consulate wasn’t the final chapter in this process; there was still a tremendous amount of work to do. With the help of colleagues from around Mission China, most importantly the human resources and general service officer teams in Guangzhou and Beijing, consulate staff began the process of cutting travel orders, arranging pack-outs, and preparing severance benefits for local staff. Quarantined colleagues arrived back in Chengdu in time to say goodbye to the local staff and help wrap up any remaining issues. PRC officials kept up their harassment, refusing to clear American staff’s personal shipments through customs until the Department made clearance of the PRC’s shipments out of Houston conditional on the release of the shipments in Chengdu. But in a year filled with a never-ending stream of challenges, consulate staff overcame each one with dignity and the professionalism that is common to the Foreign Service and part of the proud legacy of ConGen Chengdu.
On October 28, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs leadership held a ceremony to recognize the Chengdu diplomats and their families for their extraordinary service connected with the suspension of operations at ConGen Chengdu in July. Biegun praised the Chengdu diplomats’ professionalism in the face of adversity, remarking that this represents the very best of America and the Foreign Service.
Jim Mullinax is deputy director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs Division for Trade Policy and Negotiations/Intellectual Property Enforcement. He was previously consul general at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu.