The United States government on Tuesday ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston within three days as tensions between both the countries continued to rise, Reuters reported. US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the consulate was directed to be closed to protect American intellectual property and information.

“The United States will not tolerate the PRC’s [People’s 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,” she added.

Beijing called the order an “unprecedented escalation” in recent actions taken by Washington and threatened retaliation. “We urge the US to immediately revoke this erroneous decision,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a news briefing. “Should it insist on going down this wrong path, China will react with firm countermeasures.”

Wang also alleged that the US government has been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time.

Meanwhile, firefighters and police were called to the consulate building on Tuesday night after reports that documents were being burned in the courtyard. “Officers were not granted access to enter the building,” the Houston Police tweeted.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the consulate was operating normally but did not reply to questions about documents being burnt. The Chinese Consulate in Houston was opened in 1979, according to a statement on its website. There are five Chinese consulates in the US, as well as an embassy in Washington.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased tensions between Washington and Beijing and their relations have reached their lowest point in years. President Donald Trump has consistently pointed to Chinese culpability in failing to contain the outbreak in its early stages and accused Beijing of not being transparent about it. China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, its treatment of Uighur Muslims and massive trade surpluses has also contributed to the strained ties.

Trump had also signed an order to end special trade preferences for Hong Kong to punish China’s “oppressive actions” against the former British colony.

On Tuesday, US prosecutors charged two alleged Chinese hackers over a “sweeping global computer intrusion campaign”. The hackers were accused of stealing information on weapons designs, Covid-19 vaccine research, software source code and personal data.