At least they had one last Texas barbecue at China’s consulate in Houston. Late last night, a local news station — ironically, KPRC — noticed a bonfire in the back of the facility. Workers at the consulate had already begun destroying sensitive material after the US ordered the People’s Republic of China to shut down the facility in 72 hours:

The United States ordered China to close its diplomatic consulate in Houston within 72 hours, dealing another blow to the rapidly deteriorating relations between the two countries. China promptly vowed to retaliate, calling the move illegal.

The State Department said the closure was made in response to repeated Chinese violations of American sovereignty, including “massive illegal spying and influence operations.” …

The State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said the order to close the consulate showed that the United States would not tolerate China’s “egregious behavior.”

“The People’s Republic of China has engaged for years in massive illegal spying and influence operations throughout the United States against U.S. government officials and American citizens,” Ms. Ortagus said in a pointed and politically tinged statement.

The administration has escalated its fight against China, but a consulate closure puts this on another level. Beijing responded angrily to the order and pledged to “resolutely” respond in kind:

Beijing vowed to retaliate, calling the order “an unprecedented escalation” in a broader conflict between the world’s two biggest economies, which now encompasses trade and technology, freedom of the press and religion, and the novel coronavirus and the race for a vaccine.

“The U.S. has far more diplomatic missions and staff working in China. So if the U.S. is bent on going down this wrong path, we will resolutely respond,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters Wednesday.

What prompted this escalation? The Department of Justice indicted two alleged hackers working for China yesterday in efforts to penetrate COVID-19 research, as well as wire fraud and conspiracy charges. The indictment alleges that the PRC’s intelligence community was linked to the efforts:

The indictment includes trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy charges against the hackers, former classmates at an electrical engineering college who prosecutors say worked together for more than a decade targeting high-tech companies in more than 10 countries.

The hackers, identified as Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, stole information not only for their personal profit but also research and technology that they knew would be of value to the Chinese government, prosecutors say.

In some instances, the indictment says, they provided an officer for a Chinese intelligence service with whom they worked email accounts and passwords belonging to clergymen, dissidents and pro-democracy activists who could then be targeted. The officer gave help of his own, providing malicious software after one of the hackers struggled to compromise the mail server of a Burmese human rights group.

It’s the first specific case brought to back up the accusations, but don’t buy ringside seats for a trial. The two hackers are in China, not the US, and it’s not likely they will ever be brought to trial. The indictment does limit their ability to travel, however, at least to any countries with extradition agreements with the US:

The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded Tuesday that they were not likely to step foot in an American courtroom. But the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behavior was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the U.S. and risk arrest.

Clearly, the Trump administration doesn’t see the indictment as enough of a disincentive for the bad behavior. They want to send a message to China that the US will not sit quietly while hostile intelligence services attempt to plunder US assets and invade our computer systems. Well, not any more, anyway; China has spent the last decade-plus plundering US government systems such as OPM and economic targets like Equifax without any significant public penalty. The State Department’s action is long overdue.

It’s timely in another way too, though:

In the last two weeks, his administration has used a variety of methods — press conferences, new legal judgments, numerous op-eds, high-profile speeches, overseas trips — to suddenly hit Beijing over long-standing issues the president often skirted in the past.

“It’s only gotten worse for China in polls,” said John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster. “People always saw China as an economic adversary that stole our jobs, but now they see China as a security threat.”

Trump and his administration have long bludgeoned China over specific issues. The reality TV star relentlessly talked about the country’s trade practices on the campaign trail in 2016 and his Cabinet has regularly warned that the country is trying to force technology companies to hand over data. But the president has always balanced these admonitions with ample praise of Xi himself, at times largely side-stepping human rights concerns, such as Beijing’s infringement on Hong Kong’s separate legal system and its detention of Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority group.

In recent weeks, however, the tone has changed. And in the last two weeks, the speed and variety of punishments targeting China has accelerated.

Is this driven in part by politics? Probably, but it might be better to say that politics drove Trump’s earlier reluctance to stick with get-tough policies. The trade war on China hurt economic growth, although we did so well in other ways that it was easy to overlook. After COVID-19 and the shutdowns, though, economic war with China became much easier, both economically and politically. China’s continuing espionage — industrial and otherwise — is too significant and blatant now to ignore.