China's San Francisco Consulate Set Ablaze by Arsonist

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We’re barely two days into 2014, and already U.S.-China relations are off to a rocky start. An unknown assailant set fire to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco at around 9:30 pm on January 1. According to the consulate’s statement, the attacker parked a mini-van in front of the main entrance and emerged to pour two buckets of gasoline onto the consulate’s door. He or she then set the gasoline on fire. There were no injuries, but the fire caused “severe damage.” Photos of the fire and aftermath are circulating on Chinese news media.

The consulate’s statement “strongly condemn[s] the despicable act” and urged the United States to “take all necessary measures to provide adequate protection for Chinese consular personnel and properties, and bring the culprit(s) to justice as soon as possible.” China’s Foreign Ministry also called a special press conference to address the issue. Spokesman Qin Gang repeated the consulate’s demand for the U.S. to solve the case as quickly as possible, to “bring the perpetrators to justice,” and to strengthen security to ensure to guarantee there will be no similar incidents in the future.

The U.S. government is taking the incident seriously — the Chinese consulate’s statement noted that both the fire department and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security arrived “immediately” after the attack. In addition to the San Francisco police and fire departments, the FBI is reportedly investigating the case. As of now, no arrests have been made, but security has been increased at the consulate.

How events unfold from here could help set the tone for U.S.-China relations in 2014. There are bound to be questions and outrage within China over how such an attack could be allowed to occur. A swift investigation that successfully identifies and arrests suspects would go a long way towards ameliorating the justifiable anger Chinese might feel. On the other hand, should the investigation drag on without results, it could contribute to the perception that the U.S. has no real interest in a cooperative relationship with China. Some in China already feel that the U.S. is only out to contain China’s rise – should the investigation hit a dead end, it will almost certainly be viewed as evidence of this theory.

In addition, there is the issue of who is behind the attack. The U.S. is home to many activist groups that do not look kindly on China, from Uyghur and Tibetan activists groups to advocates for the Falun Gong, a religious sect outlawed within China. It’s hard to imagine any of these groups actually plotting an arsonist attack on a Chinese consulate, as generally their activities are limited to demonstrations or information campaigns. Still, should the attacked be found to have ties to any of these groups, it would hurt U.S.-China relations. The U.S. would be blamed for allowing such groups to operate on American soil, which might again contribute to perceptions that the U.S. government is part of a conspiracy to undermine China domestically and internationally.

Finally, there is the issue of different justice systems. In the Chinese system, an arrest almost guarantees a conviction. In the U.S., should there be extenuating circumstances (such as mental health issues), it’s not impossible that the arsonist might face a shorter sentence than the Chinese would like. The issue could be especially dicey, with the Chinese government already calling for the “severe” punishment of the attacker [Chinese].

Much is still unknown about the attack, and even under the worst case scenario it’s unlikely to have a serious impact on U.S.-China relations.  The damage, if it occurs, will be more subtle — a shifting of the balance further towards mutual distrust and away from real cooperation. All in all, it’s not a great way to start the new year.

Comments
10
Dan
January 4, 2014 at 12:47

China obviously snubbed the US in the Edward Snowden case, when he was allowed to flee from Hong Kong to Moscow. This is simply a crime against property. Outraged as much as one likes, it is good for Chinese domestic politics.

The author should work for Global Times.

C C P Lover
January 4, 2014 at 05:44

Perhap the Chinese’s Consulate door was designed to be “self Immolate” to prevent embassy staffs flee to USA?

Keith Ketterer
January 4, 2014 at 01:51

What ever happened to the perpetrators of the burning of the US Consulate in Chengdu in 1999? It would be interesting to find out.

Sarah
January 4, 2014 at 06:51

Keith, and let’s not forget the damage done to the Embassy in Beijing contemporaneous to Chengdu.

Tteng
January 4, 2014 at 15:34

C’mon now,
that was after we JDAM’ed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and killed a bunch of them.

Oilin
January 3, 2014 at 17:48

In the mid-day news in HK today (TVB, i think), they had some PRC official spouting off that it could have been done by separatists, Tibetan activists, etc. Lovely.

Horrid that this occurred — much prefer the peaceful FLG protesters who simply meditate and do qigong outside the consulates.

Sardonic.veritas
January 3, 2014 at 06:55

To the moderator who deleted my earlier comment…hiding the truth is the refuge of cowards…

Tdog
January 3, 2014 at 06:52

We should treat the attackers the same as the chinese government diid for those vandals who attacked japanese. Propertys, “do nothing”

Sardonic.veritas
January 3, 2014 at 05:55

Matt’s comment pretty much summarizes the American viewpoint. China should just give up on America and leave America to its “peaceful” ways…Korean War, Vietnam war, 2 Iraq wars, Afghanistan war, illegal bombings in Laos, Cambodia, agent orange etc….don’t forget this id the country that was founded on the genocide of the Native Peoples of the First Nation.

Matt
January 3, 2014 at 02:27

Isn’t the hedging strategy supposed to be a strategy based on Chinese strategy? China’s blatant attempt to seize the East and South China Seas and islands within them really make a hedging strategy useless at this point. We should stop pretending we don’t know which strategy China has chosen. It makes the U.S. look very weak and serves to boost Chinese moves to further seize territory. And let’s not pretend we can give the bully our lunch money and he will leave us alone.

We should treat whoever torched the door at China’s consulate the same way as China treated the vandals of Japanese property in China. At least no one was hurt. I don’t think it changes anything though other than creating a dark foreshadow for the new year. Most Americans won’t even care about it.

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