Feb 7, 2023 - World

The Chinese spy balloon drama from inside China

Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte, North Carolina, on February 4, 2023

The Chinese spy balloon. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

People in China are interpreting the Chinese spy balloon drama through the lens of alternative facts, propaganda, and censorship — underscoring how divergent information environments are deepening the chasm between the U.S. and China.

Why it matters: The balloon incident has genuinely alarmed a lot of Americans. Official Chinese statements about the nature of the airship make it harder for Chinese people to understand why Americans are reacting this way, and make the U.S. seem diplomatically unreliable.

What Washington is saying: Last week the U.S. Department of Defense said it had detected an “intelligence-gathering” airship floating over Montana and down through the continental U.S.

  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the balloon represented a “clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law” and postponed his planned trip to China over the weekend.
  • A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon on Saturday once it was over water and no longer posed a threat to people on the ground, the Pentagon said.

What Beijing is saying: China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the craft was a "civilian airship," not a surveillance airship, and denounced its downing as an "obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice."

  • The ministry warned China was "reserving the right to take further actions in response."

The big picture: Chinese high-altitude balloons have also been spotted near Taiwan, Japan, and India in the past couple of years, including over important air defense sites. Analysts say the balloons are part of China's so-called "lighter than air" surveillance balloon program.

The state of play: Online discussion in China, which is heavily censored by authorities, focused on the distinction between the terms "civilian airship" and "spy balloon," Whats On Weibo reported.

  • "On Chinese social media, the majority of commenters see the balloon as a weather device that went wandering and, unexpectedly, ended up measuring the temperature of Sino-American relations — which turned out to be icy cold," Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of Whats On Weibo, wrote.

Flashback: The incident has parallels to the Hainan Island incident in 2001, in which a U.S. reconnaissance plane and Chinese jet fighter collided in air, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the U.S. plane on Chinese soil.

  • It was a major diplomatic crisis, as Chinese people felt outraged at the pilot's death and blamed the U.S. for sending a surveillance craft so close to Chinese territory.
  • Americans, on the other hand, blamed the Chinese aircraft, which was smaller and more nimble than the U.S. plane, for coming too close and causing the avoidable collision. The U.S. also had to orchestrate the release of more than 20 crew members, who had been detained and interrogated by Chinese authorities.
  • Then, as now, the people and the governments of both the U.S. and China blamed the other side for the sense of violation and injustice they felt. Careful diplomatic negotiations eventually resolved the dispute, but resentments lingered on both sides for years.

The bottom line: Distrust between two countries can greatly inflame tensions. Propaganda and censorship can make it worse.

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