Ordered departure of US Consulate General in Shanghai – Why? Why and Why?
Published: Apr 14, 2022 07:13 PM
US Consulate General Shanghai

US Consulate General Shanghai

On April 9, the US Embassy in China announced "voluntary departure," or "authorized departure," to use State Department jargon, of consular officers and their families of its Consulate General in Shanghai. Three days later, the departure was upgraded to an "ordered" one, meaning non-emergency employees and all family members of the US Consulate General in Shanghai have to leave the city. The rationale behind such an order was "a surge in COVID-19 cases and the restrictions related to the response by China." It is a rather bizarre characterization of its intentions from the US side. More than one month into the surge of cases in Shanghai, the city has been steadfastly fending off the outbreak. One couldn't help but wonder, why do US officials have to leave, and why do they leave now?

I. Escaping an outbreak or fabricating a horror story?

Earlier this year, new confirmed cases in the US hit a record high of more than 1 million per day. Even though there has been a steady decline, there are still more Americans than Chinese who tested positive and were killed by the virus every day. We do not intend to play the "who-is-worse" game, but compared to the US, the biggest failure in responding to the pandemic, China's situation is still much better, even though Shanghai is experiencing the worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic. Therefore, by common logic, US diplomats and consular officers should stay in China rather than flee back to the US if they are really concerned about getting infected.

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories, but one couldn't help but notice that US diplomats' concerns have been very opportune. As early as late January, a few days before the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, little birds in Foggy Bottom told media that they planned to implement authorization departure on their diplomats and consular officers in China "until they feel safe to return." Back then, China only had sporadic cases while US daily new cases were surging to record highs. Now the US is playing the departure card again, while Shanghai is having an outbreak, a delicate moment when China's public will is under pressure. So I'll leave it to you, are the Americans leaving purely due to public health concerns, or are they simply making a point in order to create panic and smear China? It's a fairly easy question to answer.

II. China's arbitrary enforcement of the law or US failure to get exceptional treatment?

The US side accused China of "arbitrary enforcement of local laws" in its statement. Quite on the contrary, it is China's refusal to arbitrarily enforce its COVID-19 related restrictions that annoys the US.

A spokesperson of the US State Department said China's strict quarantine policy ran against the privilege foreign diplomats should enjoy. But according to relevant international conventions, while a host country should provide necessary assistance to foreign diplomatic and consular personnel to carry out their duties, the latter should show respect for local laws and regulations.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the Chinese side has "provided foreign diplomatic and consular personnel in China with assistance and convenience to the maximum extent possible under the policies." Sources have revealed to me that the Chinese side has had several talks with the US side regarding the latter's concerns over COVID-19 restrictions, and helped the US Consulate General in Shanghai in carrying out urgent missions during the lockdown. It seems that the Chinese side has done its part but the US side obviously wanted more on this matter.

However, if the US side wishes to punch a hole in China's COVID-19 policy in order to get special treatment by dangling the "departure" card, it is sitting on a very wrong assessment of reality. The virus knows no diplomatic privileges. In many cases, US overseas military and diplomats who defied local COVID restrictions were to blame for spreading the virus in some other countries. Such reports are all over the news and the Chinese government will never let that happen.

The Omicron variant is proved to be highly contagious and hard to detect. If exemptions are given to a certain group of people, it would open up a crack in the defense we have built to contain the virus. With only one virus slipping into the public, the entire efforts to combat an outbreak will go down the drain. This is unfair to all those who have restrained themselves and a waste of all the resources put into containing the outbreak.

III. Protecting or abandoning American citizens?

The primary task of diplomats and consular officials is to protect the interests and rights of their nationals living in foreign lands. While many US nationals living in Shanghai are busy volunteering for their communities and combating the pandemic together with their Chinese neighbors (you may find yourself flooded by such heart-warming stories or posts on social websites these days), their consular officers are packing up and fleeing the city. What kind of protection is that? If Foggy Bottom really thinks that the situation in Shanghai is so dire that their employees cannot survive in the city anymore, shouldn't they try everything to stay and help the US nationals?

The world has been under attack from the coronavirus for more than two years now and the US has undergone its own hard time when the pandemic sickened over 1 million Americans every day. During those dark days, we didn't hear a word of complaint from Chinese Diplomats or Consular officers in the US. On the contrary, they had been busy getting medicine, masks and other necessities to Chinese nationals in the US and providing them with services. We see Chinese diplomats holding their posts in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria one crisis after another, and they are always the last to leave. Comparing track records, there is no need to debate who is doing their jobs and fulfilling their duties, and who are whitewashing their indifference and incompetence.

The difference in the responses to the crisis by government employees is a demonstration of the difference in the governing philosophies of the two countries in question. Do we really care about the welfare of the people, or do we simply put "human rights" in every speech by the president and wait for the magic word to manifest itself? This is the essence of the difference between Beijing and Washington, and this is the key leading to the totally different outcomes of their efforts in fighting against this pandemic.

Now Shanghai is at a critical moment in fighting against the pandemic. At the moment of difficulty, those who stayed and helped will be remembered, and the memories and friendships cherished. There is no question that Shanghai is getting closer to victory day by day with the pulled efforts of everyone. Chinese people keep records. Public opinion will have its fair judgment of those who make things worse.

The author is an observer on international affairs. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn