China on Thursday said its diplomatic missions will “firmly safeguard” the rights of its citizens, amid claims by US authorities that a wanted scientist is hiding in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.

“Chinese consulates will firmly safeguard Chinese citizens’ legal interests,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news conference in Beijing, state-run daily Global Times reported.

His comment was in response to the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) allegations against Tang Juan, who worked as a researcher at University of California, Davis.

According to US broadcaster CNN, the FBI has accused Tang of concealing her connection to the Chinese military in her visa application and she was charged on June 26 with one count of visa fraud.

In court filings, the bureau said Tang went to the San Francisco consulate at some point after June 20, “where the FBI assesses she has remained.”

The issue comes at the same time Washington has ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas – a decision US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said was taken because China was “stealing American and European intellectual property.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said American authorities have been “monitoring, harassing and suppressing Chinese overseas students and scholars in the US, imposing presumption of guilt on them.”

“This is blunt political persecution and severely infringes on Chinese citizens’ interests,” he said.

He also rejected the top US diplomat’s claims as “malicious slander.”

“Mike Pompeo’s accusation that the Chinese consulate in Houston has interfered with US domestic affairs and stolen intellectual property is a malicious slander,” Wenbin was quoted as saying by Global Times.

“The [Houston consulate] move severely violates international laws and damages the bridge of bilateral friendship.”

The spokesperson also denied reports that Chinese consulate staff in Houston used “fake IDs,” saying their “entry into airport restricted areas was approved by US side and they used US-approved papers.”

The daily South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that Beijing could retaliate by closing down the “strategically important” US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

However, Wenbin did not hint at any such move as he reiterated how Beijing had always facilitated US diplomatic missions in China.

“US diplomatic personnel returned and resumed operations at the US Consulate General in Wuhan in June, after the US decided to close it in January. China has always provided convenience to the US consulate,” he said.

In a separate comment, the spokesperson said China was “considering not recognizing” the British National (Overseas) passport as a viable travel document.

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