China's Houston consulate. Photo: Mark Felix / AFP

The Trump administration told China to close its diplomatic consulate in Houston "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus confirmed to Axios on Wednesday morning.

The latest: Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that President Trump directed the State Department to withdraw its consent for China to operate its consulate in Houston due to a litany of abuses in the bilateral relationship.

"We find the U.S.-China relationship today weighed down by a growing number of disputes, including commercial espionage and intellectual property theft from American companies; unequal treatment of our diplomats, businesses, NGOs, and journalists by Chinese authorities; and abuse of the United States’ academic freedom and welcoming posture toward international students to steal sensitive technology and research from our universities in order to advance the PRC’s military."
— Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun

Why it matters: The move further escalates already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, exacerbated by stalled trade talks, China's crackdown on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslims, and the subsequent U.S. response with sanctions — among other things.

  • China's foreign ministry said in a statement it would "react with firm countermeasures" to the eviction, calling it a "political provocation" that's "outrageous and unjustified."

Of note: Confirmation of the closure that's due to occur on Friday came after police and fire crews responded to a call of smoke coming from the Consulate General of China in Houston Tuesday night.

  • A police official told Axios they received reports that Chinese consulate officials at the building were "burning their own paperwork."
  • They couldn't enter the building as China has sovereignty over it.

What they're saying: Ortagus said in a statement the Vienna Convention states diplomats must "respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State" and "have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.

  • "The United States will not tolerate [China's] violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated [China's] unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior," Ortagus added. "President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations."

Flashback: In 2017, black smoke was seen coming from the chimney of the Russian consulate in San Francisco one day after the Trump administration ordered its closure.

  • Russian officials wouldn't allow firefighters into the building and a firefighter told AP at the time they were "burning something in the fireplace."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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