China has claimed that the balloon that flew over North America for more than a week before being shot down over the Atlantic was a civilian object used “for scientific research.” However, after the US Navy recovered the balloon’s debris from the ocean, American officials underlined that it had indeed been designed for spying. China has opposed such accusations and the narrative proliferated by the Chinese media soon started allocating responsibility to anyone but China, portraying oneself as a victim of “Western machinations” and malicious “China threat” hype. the incident seems to be raising crisis fears, straining ties between China and the West even further.
On 1 February 2023, Joe Biden issued an order to take down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had been flying within American airspace and repeatedly described by the Chinese officials as a harmless „civilian airship used for research.“ The US authorities have reportedly communicated with the Chinese government regarding the issue before a military fighter jet shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February, just days before the Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to travel to Beijing.
Consequently, the visit was postponed while China’s Foreign Ministry warned against “deliberate speculation” over the incident, stressing that China had always been “a responsible country that acts in accordance with international law.” Its denouncement of the military strike on what it said was a „meteorological object“ was, however, flatly refuted by the US not long after an initial inspection of the balloon’s wreckage.
“China threat” hype by the US?
The topic of the “unmanned airship (无人飞艇)” started resonating on Chinese internet and in the state media as well. The US reaction was put in contrast to China’s calls for “cool-headed approach” and described as an exaggeration and an attempt to “falsely accuse” China and “create more obstacles for bilateral relations” by the tabloid-like Global Times. Statements of American authorities were said to be baseless, untrue and the downing of the balloon was called an “unacceptable and irresponsible” move. On the other hand, the newspaper stressed China as responsible and keen to deal with the situation in a calm manner – an attitude that was, however, largely overshadowed by Beijing’s hardened rhetoric following the balloon’s downing, when it labelled Washington as a “destroyer of relations” and a “crisis-maker.”
The US were accused of “overreacting” and “seriously violating international practice” and instantly, words of protests arose over the damage the US caused to China and its reluctance to return the balloon. Suggestions by some unnamed analysts that the US was after stealing Chinese “cutting-edge technology” also appeared in Chinese media, while posts ridiculing the US were spreading over Weibo and Weixin (formerly known also as WeChat). The Global Times did not hold back as it began comparing the US reaction to a sci-fi drama, called American politicians paranoid and hysteric, also citing the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning who blamed the US for fact-distortion. Another of her remarks, in which she highlighted that the US was itself well-known to be “number one” in surveillance, also appeared to act as a fruitful basis for various articles discussing American spying techniques by the Chinese media.
Incidents from 2001 and 2016, when American intelligence-gathering planes and vehicles were detected in the South China Sea were widely reminded to the Chinese public in the media, shifting the attention back to the US as the main culprit who takes advantage of any circumstances to “hype the China threat.” Chinese netizens brought about related arguments when commenting under posts on Weibo rather frequently, while others pointed out that the Chinese “unmanned airship” had already floated passed the US before, namely during the Trump presidency, and ridiculed the US response. An article featuring Donald Trump’s criticism of Biden’s administration for its “slow” reaction to the Balloon Incident also appeared on many Chinese news websites (republished from the Chinese version of the Global Times) after the Pentagon announced that there were at least three similar balloon incident that had gone undetected under the previous administration.
Fact-distortion or rational choice?
Mockery of the US reaction was, however, not the only aspect present in the Chinese media that also produced more serious articles and turned the incident into a “fight over facts.” Indeed, depicting the US as a “fact-distorter” has become a common practice for China as many China-related statements by Western politicians tend to be unpopular in China and thus often called “groundless” or “distorted.” It is thus not surprising that the Chinese Foreign Minister utilized identical strategy and in the context of the Balloon Incident stressed that “the facts are clear and cannot be smeared,” criticizing the US of “turning a deaf ear” and thus expanding the tension between both countries.
The image of the US as a “overreacting global bully” causing rising hostility and “unnecessary damage” to other states, reinforced by the Chinese media, tends to strengthen China’s contrasting self-portrayal as a “sincere” country, that poses no threat and aims to contribute to world peace and equality between states, to the domestic audience. In fact, the “US hegemony” has been an ever-present buzzword in Chinese political statements, used repeatedly whenever its own position requires further reasoning and exculpation. For instance, the “fight against the US hegemony” has been echoed as part of China’s position on the Ukraine war, in the context of systemic rivalry, definitions of democracy, human rights, as well as topics related to technology and research and development. Amid the Balloon Incident, China has once more been said to face the “big fuss” steered by the West, exaggeration of the “China threat,” and attempts to smear China’s image and successes.
Whereas Chinese officials, scholars, and journalists are often particularly rigid in their attitudes, strictly in line with China’s official positions, Chinese netizens are not always easily persuaded, as observed on Weibo and in comments under newspaper articles. Some netizens’ posts defended China, as expected from true nationalists, and even shared their thoughts on the potential impact of the Balloon Incident. One of them listed eight various effects, including a shift in the perception of the US (given the revelation of its true colors as a “meddler”) and expansion of China’s “circle of friends.” Other netizens called for some sort of response given that the US deliberately and “shamelessly” destroyed another country’s property, and the Chinese should not be “fantasizing about being friendly with the US” anymore and “take more aggressive action.”
Yet, dissenting voices appeared as well. Some internet users pointed out that shooting a foreign flying object down was only rational and China would have reacted similarly, was it the other way around. “We cannot blame anyone but ourselves for the lack of control over the balloon,” agreed another netizen, encouraging others to “think differently” while also asking, “would our country ever allow balloons from other states to just fly over its own territory?” Not many netizens, however, reacted positively to the message: “Stand up, your knees must hurt since you kneel before the US so much” scoffed one netizen at the comment, while others argued they “were not Americans” and thus there was “no change of thinking needed.”
The Balloon Incident became a tangible representation of the intensifying US-China rivalry and a herald of things to come. With tough rhetoric on both sides, similar incidents could very well put the two sides on a dangerous course. In fact, the balloon incident seems to be evolving into a balloon crisis of sorts. Just a few days after downing the balloon near South Carolina., the US Air Force have destroyed two more unidentified flying objects over US and Canada, respectively. Meanwhile, China closed the skies over Shandong province on February 12 after allegedly detecting a ‘UFO’ of its own.