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Vietnamese-American activists against the Chinese Communist Party protest outside of China’s Consulate before its closure in Houston on July 24, 2020.

ADREES LATIF/Reuters

Staff left China’s Houston consulate to a jeering crowd on Friday as the clock ticked down on a U.S. government order to vacate the building after Washington called it a hub for spying on American companies and researchers.

About 100 protesters shouted “take back China,” denounced the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and waived flags as consulate workers loaded belongings into rental trunks.

The five-story building this week became the latest flashpoint between Beijing and Washington over trade, the novel coronavirus pandemic and military maneuvers in Southeast Asia.

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Zhony Yi Ma, 34, traveled to Houston with a group from New York to heckle consulate staff. Police kept the crowd away from the building.

“We want to end the CCP, take back China and build a nation like America,” he said.

Shortly after the 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) deadline to close the consulate, a group of people were seen by a Reuters journalist forcing there way into a back door. They declined to identify themselves to Reuters.

Among protesters was a group of supporters of the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned in China. Tao Peng, 48, stood silently holding banners calling for an end to communism.

A medical research scientist from Houston, she said the CCP infiltrates groups and cannot be trusted.

“I grew up in mainland China and have seen how the CCP lies,” she said as a Falun Gong hired truck circled the area emblazoned on its sides with “Freedom from Communism, and God Bless America.”

Nhat Nguyen, 58, praised U.S. President Donald Trump and accused Chinese communists of spying around the world. He wore a Trump 2020 campaign hat and waived the former flag of the South Vietnamese government that was backed by the United States against the communist North in the 1960s-70s era Vietnam war.

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“The vaccine is the latest,” he said. “They lie, they take,” he said, promising to stay and celebrate the consulate’s official closing.

Staff there had duties in eight Southern U.S. states. The building closed for official business earlier in the week.

Senior U.S. officials said on Friday that the consulate was one of the worst offenders in terms of Chinese espionage in the United States and linked its staff to China’s pursuit of a new coronavirus vaccine.

Houston is a major U.S. medical hub known for top-notch research on cancer, infectious diseases and since the pandemic hit this year, vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, which first emerged in China late last year.

The city is the energy capital of the United States and home to dozens of oil and gas producers that develop technologies used around the world.

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