World News

China Pledges to Investigate Fears of Sonic Attacks on U.S. Diplomats

Posted June 7, 2018 2:35 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2018 2:36 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — China said Thursday that it is prepared to help get to the bottom of a mysterious illness that has sickened Americans working at the U.S. Consulate in the southern part of the country and led to the evacuation of a number of diplomats this week.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the government had already carried out an investigation in May after the first case of an American diplomat becoming sick in the city of Guangzhou was reported in April.

At the time, Chinese investigators had not been able to determine the source of the diplomat’s illness, the ministry said.

U.S. diplomats at the consulate have complained of symptoms similar to those “following concussion or minor traumatic brain injury,” and may have been targets of attacks involving strange sounds, the State Department said Wednesday.

The symptoms — and the apparent causes — are similar to those that affected 24 U.S. personnel in Cuba in 2016.

The State Department has not said how many of the more than 100 U.S. employees at the consulate in Guangzhou have been evacuated so far. The ill diplomats complained of unusual sounds in their apartments, which are not far from the consulate.

Those evacuated were being taken for testing to the University of Pennsylvania Center for Brain Injury and Repair, where a team of researchers had examined the cases from Cuba.

China had not been informed by the United States of the latest evacuations, a ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said Thursday.

“If the U.S. comes to us regarding this case again, we will investigate it seriously and keep close cooperation with the U.S.,” Hua said.

She added that China took seriously its obligations under the Vienna Convention, an international accord that requires governments to protect the diplomats of other countries.

The illnesses have the potential to further upset relations between China and the United States, already strained over trade disputes and North Korea.

Last year, the State Department pulled from Cuba a large number of diplomats who had developed vertigo, sleeplessness and cognitive impairment, saying the country was unable to protect them.

U.S. officials have raised questions about whether Russia, or China, might be involved separately or in tandem in targeting the diplomats.

In an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, brain researchers at the University of Pennsylvania described the sickness as a new neurological syndrome.

The odd nature of the illness could put the Chinese in a difficult predicament, even if they want to be diligent about trying to protect U.S. and other foreign officials, diplomatic experts said.

The United States would no doubt press China to uncover the cause of the illnesses and to stop it, but it could prove difficult, or too embarrassing, for China to do so, the experts said.

One path would be for the United States to suggest that the two countries conduct a joint investigation, they added.

In a statement released Wednesday night in Washington, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said: “As a result of the screening process so far, the department has sent a number of individuals for further evaluation and a comprehensive assessment of their symptoms and findings in the United States.”

The statement did not disclose how many complained of the illness associated with the mysterious sounds and sensations. A State Department statement this week listed the symptoms as “dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, ear complaints and hearing loss, and difficulty sleeping.”

According to experts who studied the previous cases in Cuba, those afflicted so far in Cuba and Guangzhou suffered injuries consistent with a concussion without ever having received a blow to the head.

One official said that “a sizable number” of people working in Guangzhou had requested examinations, which are being carried out in the consulate’s medical facilities. The officials cautioned that not everyone who experienced the sonic effects or showed symptoms would necessarily show signs of injuries.

The consulate is the largest by far in China, and is a major site for the issuing of visas for travel to the United States. Many of the U.S. diplomats are in their first or second postings overseas, making the mysterious nature of the illnesses particularly unsettling. In addition to the State Department’s medical team, which arrived May 31, specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also arrived in China this week to join in the investigation in Guangzhou.

“The precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel, and whether a common cause exists for all cases, has not yet been established,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday, announcing the formation of a task force to examine the illnesses.

Mark A. Lenzi, a security engineering officer who was evacuated Wednesday with his family, said he and his wife began having headaches and trouble sleeping at the end of last year. That corresponded roughly with the period the first diplomat who was evacuated in April reported experiencing the mysterious sounds and sensations.

Lenzi’s apartment was in the same tower of an upscale development called the Canton Place, a little more than 1 mile from the consulate.

Lenzi, in an interview before he left with his wife and their two children, complained that officials at the consulate and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had misled employees in Guangzhou about the nature of the threat. He said he was reprimanded — and denied access to the classified area of the consulate building — after he raised his concerns.

On Tuesday, the consulate held a town-hall meeting with the acting director general of the Foreign Service, William E. Todd, who also flew in. Among the topics listed for discussion were “medevacs,” or medical evacuations, for those with symptoms or in need of further examinations.