Hong Kong(CNN) The United States government has abruptly ordered China to "cease all operations and events" at its consulate in Houston, Texas, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in what it called an "unprecedented escalation" in recent actions taken by Washington.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the consulate was directed to close "in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans' private information" but did not immediately provide additional details of what prompted the closure.
Relations between China and the United States have plummeted in the past year, amid an ongoing trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and US criticism of China's human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
A spokesperson for the State Department said in a separate statement that China "has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations" and that those "activities have increased markedly in scale and scope over the past few years."
Late Tuesday evening, police in Houston said they responded to reports of smoke in the courtyard outside the consulate, located on Montrose Boulevard, in the city's Midtown area. Local media shared video of what appeared to be officials inside the compound burning documents.
In a statement posted on its official social media, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the order to close the consulate was a "political provocation unilaterally launched by the US side, which seriously violates international law, basic norms governing international relations and the bilateral consular agreement between China and the US."
"China strongly condemns such an outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage China-US relations," it said. "We urge the US to immediately withdraw its erroneous decision, otherwise China will make legitimate and necessary reactions."
The statement goes on to say the US has been "shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China's social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in the US, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and confiscating their personal electrical devices, even detaining them without cause."
It added "China is committed to the principle of non-interference. Infiltration and interference is never in the genes and tradition of China's foreign policy."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Europe, where he has been rallying leaders on the continent to take a harder line with Beijing, and meeting with exiled dissidents.
"The United States will not tolerate the PRC's (People Republic of China) violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior. President Trump insists on fairness and reciprocity in US-China relations," Ortagus said in the statement.
On Twitter, Hu Xijin, editor of the state-backed tabloid Global Times with strong ties to China's Communist Party, said that Beijing had been given 72 hours to close the consulate. "This is a crazy move," he added.
According to a statement on its website, the Houston consulate covers eight southern US states, including Texas and Florida, as well as Puerto Rico. It was the "was the first (consulate) to be established" in 1979 after the US and China established diplomatic relations, though a liaison office was already operating in Washington, DC, at that time.
On Tuesday, US prosecutors charged two alleged Chinese hackers over a "sweeping global computer intrusion campaign" that they say was supported by the country's government and aimed at coronavirus treatment and vaccine research. The indictment also marks the first time that the US has accused the hackers of working on behalf of the Chinese government.