What do the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu and an attempted defection to the same American mission by a senior Chinese official eight years ago have in common? Aside from the involvement of the only US diplomatic representation in China’s vast western region in two landmark moments in China-US relations , it can be argued that both events have also marked a turning point in Chinese history. The shutdown of the Chengdu consulate , together with the closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston on Friday, marks a sad end to an era of engagement between the world’s two largest economies which has spanned the past five decades. US-China relations – trapped for months in a steep downward spiral over trade, the coronavirus origins, Hong Kong , Xinjiang and the South China Sea – are widely seen to be tilting towards confrontation and conflict. Nevertheless, the consulate closures, amounting to the downgrading of ties, came as a shock to everyone. It is not the first time bilateral ties have faced a make-or-break moment. In one of the biggest crises in the history of China-US relations, Beijing recalled its Washington ambassador Li Daoyu in June 1995, a week after Taiwan’s president Lee Teng-hui made a private visit to the US. By comparison, the stunning flight into the American consulate in Chengdu by former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun ahead of a leadership reshuffle in 2012 was nothing short of theatrical. It also contributed to a rewriting of China’s political landscape. Wang, the right-hand man of Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai , spent more than 30 hours inside the US mission after seeking asylum there in early February. During his stay, he made allegations about the involvement of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai , in the murder of a British businessman. His application was eventually rejected. The saga, which included the surrounding by police officers of the consulate, was later described by then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton as “a dangerous situation”. She also defended president Barack Obama’s decision to turn down Wang’s application because he “had a record of corruption, of thuggishness, brutality”. Wang’s failed defection attempt came just a week before Xi Jinping , as Chinese vice-president, visited the US and a few months before a generational leadership succession which unleashed China’s worst political crisis in decades. It led to the downfall of Bo – arguably the country’s most high-profile princeling politician and an ambitious front runner in the race for a seat on the Politburo’s Standing Committee – and tipped the balance of power between the different factions and contenders for the leadership. Bo was later expelled from the party, put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2013 over various corruption charges, including taking bribes and abuse of power. Bo’s fall from grace was widely seen as a motivation for Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption crusade of the following years, which effectively helped to make him the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The consulate in Chengdu was opened in 1985 by vice-president George H.W. Bush , regarded in China as a well-respected old friend, and followed the opening of US diplomatic offices in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang after Washington restored relations with Beijing in 1979. For 26 years, the Chengdu mission served as the headquarters of the US Peace Corps’ China programme, which produced more than 1,300 volunteer English educators. But it was also the scene of mass anti-US demonstrations – the country’s worst in decades – in May 1999 after the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Protests swept across several major cities with tens of thousands of demonstrators hurling stones at the US embassy in Beijing. In Chengdu, angry protesters set fire to the US consul general’s residence, in the most dramatic moment of the mission’s history. The Chengdu consulate witnessed many ups and downs in the China-US relationship over its 35 years of operation, before falling victim to the soured atmosphere between the two countries. With the US presidential election less than 100 days away, neither side appears to have a clear view about the end-game of their increasingly hostile rivalry in a post-engagement era which many have likened to a new Cold War. Hours after the White House decision to close China’s Houston consulate – which had allegedly become “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft” – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo characterised Washington’s future relations with Beijing on Thursday as “distrust and verify”. It was a revealing tweak of a phrase used by Ronald Reagan to describe his administration’s approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War: “trust, but verify”.