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Opinion A diplomat’s mysterious illness could jeopardize China’s relationship with the U.S.

Security workers guard a construction site for the U.S. Consulate compound in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province in 2009.
Security workers guard a construction site for the U.S. Consulate compound in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province in 2009. (AP)

An earlier version of this column conflated two of Mark Lenzi’s neighbors. The neighbor he thought might be causing a disturbance is a Japanese citizen living in an apartment building in Guangzhou, China, not the U.S. Consulate. A different neighbor, who is a Foreign Service officer, was evacuated and flown to the United States. Lenzi’s 3-year-old son also did not display symptoms similar to those of his parents. Additionally, Lenzi’s security clearance was not revoked. His access to the building where he worked was restricted. This version has been corrected.

Mark Lenzi and his family started noticing the noises in April 2017. He would later describe to me hearing something like “marbles bouncing and hitting a floor, then rolling on an incline with a static sound.” At first, he and his wife thought that a neighbor — a Japanese citizen living in a residence near the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China — was responsible. The neighbor denied having anything to do with it.

A few months later, the headaches started — pain that lasted for days at a time. Lenzi and his wife experienced the same symptoms, which soon included chronic sleeplessness as well. Lenzi says he asked his superiors for help but they dismissed his concerns. Consulate doctors prescribed painkillers and Ambien, which did nothing to address the underlying causes of the problem.

And then, last month, Lenzi was shocked to learn another neighbor, a fellow Foreign Service officer, had been evacuated from their building and flown back to the United States for a thorough medical assessment, which soon determined that the person in question was suffering from “mild traumatic brain injury.” On May 23, the State Department issued its first public remarks on the case, a health warning stating that an unnamed “U.S. government employee in China recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure,” and urging anyone with “concerns about symptoms or medical problems that developed during or after a stay in China” to “consult a medical professional.”

The statement also said that the U.S. government was unaware of any other cases — a point strongly disputed by Lenzi, who insists he had repeatedly informed both the embassy in Beijing and State Department headquarters in Washington of his family’s predicament. “Mark is a very capable guy,” says political consultant Michael Getto, a longtime friend of Lenzi’s. “If he says something is wrong or amiss, then it is.”

Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the State Department responded: “Due to medical laws and privacy concerns, we do not comment on specific cases or individuals.”

The situation in Guangzhou is eerily reminiscent of an episode in Havana, where, starting in the fall of 2016, at least 24 staffers at the U.S. Embassy incurred brain injuries after exposure to an equally mysterious source. Despite considerable speculation about microwaves or a “sonic weapon” deployed against the diplomats, scientists have yet to determine — at least publicly — precisely what caused the damage. Most of those affected now seem to have recovered.

The political fallout was considerable. The State Department brought many embassy staffers home and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States. On the day of the first revelation about the case in Guangzhou on May 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew an explicit comparison to the Cuban case during a House hearing: “The medical indications are very similar, and entirely consistent with, the medical indications that were taking place to Americans working in Cuba.”

Needless to say, this is a particularly fraught moment in U.S.-China relations. The Trump administration has been pressing Beijing hard on trade, even as it has been relying on the Chinese to help bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table. A widening scandal involving the possible mistreatment of U.S. diplomats couldn’t come at a worse time. (The State Department spokesperson told me that “the Chinese government has assured us they are also investigating and taking appropriate measures.”)

So far, the fact that only a single staff member is publicly known to have been affected has allowed the Trump administration to play down the Guangzhou case. That may no longer be possible if more victims present themselves — and Lenzi, for one, is not prepared to go away quietly. A former staff member on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 primary campaign, he is well- ­connected in Washington and says he has already been calling internally for the resignation of the U.S. ambassador to Beijing. He says the State Department restricted his access to the building where he normally worked after he began to speak up more forcefully about the treatment of his family, essentially neutralizing his capacity to continue his work at the consulate. Lenzi and his family were evacuated on Wednesday.

There is some good news. On May 31, a high-level medical team arrived in Guangzhou to examine any consulate employees who so request, including Lenzi and his family, who have been told they are likely to be sent to the United States for detailed brain analysis. Deputy Undersecretary for Management Bill Todd and several other senior State Department officials also went to Guangzhou “to address employee concerns and to conduct an assessment of Post conditions,” as the spokesperson put it.

Lenzi says he believes that the number of those affected will turn out to be higher than Washington expects. If he’s right, U.S.-Chinese relations could start to enter a rocky patch.

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