China’s claim that the US has flown balloons into its airspace marks the latest in a series of shifting positions the country has taken on a saga that has gripped the world.
It has been almost two weeks since the US first accused China of floating a spy balloon over its territory.
The incident has provoked a range of responses – from indignation to fevered speculation – from the Chinese government and people.
Silence, then admission
After the Pentagon first announced the existence of the balloon on 2 February, Chinese officials refrained from an immediate response, only breaking their silence the following evening.
In a statement they admitted the object belonged to them, but added it was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” that had been blown off-course.
Taking a near-apologetic tone – rare for Beijing – they characterised it as an accident, saying they “regretted the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure”.
But state media, which had mostly held off from reporting the story until the government’s admission, got more defensive.
China Daily claimed the “fabricated balloon lie cannot be tied down to China”, while the Global Times urged the US “to be more sincere in fixing relations with China instead of making provocative actions against it”.
Netizens wasted no time in making jokes about the incident, with many calling the object “The Wandering Balloon” – a reference to the popular Chinese science-fiction novel and film The Wandering Earth.
The morning after, Chinese authorities released a longer, more vigorous defence as news broke that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had called off a planned trip to China, claiming that “some politicians and media in the US have hyped it up to attack and smear China”.
That same day, the US shot the balloon down – prompting Chinese ire.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning called it a “a clear overreaction” and “unacceptable and irresponsible”.
“The airship does not belong to the US. It belongs to China,” she said, when asked if China had requested for the balloon’s remnants to be returned.
Officials lodged a formal complaint with the US embassy in Beijing, and China’s Defence Ministry said they “reserved the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations”.
Online, Chinese nationalists indignantly denounced the US. Prominent commentator Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of Global Times, thought the US “had to end” the situation by using a missile, because Americans “aren’t able to treat an accident by seeking truth from facts, instead they had to politicise it”.
Meanwhile, a second balloon was spotted drifting over Latin America, which Chinese authorities also admitted was theirs.
On the Chinese internet there was fevered speculation about who exactly had launched the balloon, in the absence of details about its civilian origins.
Many seized upon recent news articles that mentioned a local company, ChemChina Zhuzhou Rubber Research and Design Institute, as one of the main producers of high-altitude balloons in China.
Some bloggers claimed ChemChina Zhuzhou, a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise, had made the balloon. But there has been no evidence linking the company to the airship.
The confusion deepened on Sunday, when a report came out in news outlet The Paper about an unidentified object allegedly flying off the coast of the eastern Shandong province.
It said fisheries officials had sent out a warning to local fishermen that Chinese authorities were preparing to shoot down the object.
The report was reproduced by some Chinese outlets, but state media and government departments remained silent. It sent social media into overdrive nonetheless, with some accounts even live streaming satellite images of the area.
But some online reacted with suspicion and asked if it was real, questioning why the news had not been announced on more official channels.
Turning the narrative
On Monday, the Chinese government had a new claim – that US balloons had breached their airspace at least 10 times in the past year.
“The first thing the US side should do is start with a clean slate, undergo some self-reflection, instead of smearing and accusing China,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
The US has denied the accusation.
At the same time, state media has begun focusing on a different narrative – a derailed train carrying hazardous material in Ohio.
Though the incident happened in early February, Chinese news outlets are now devoting significant coverage on the topic, citing US media reports. US officials have performed a controlled release of toxic chemicals from the train to prevent contamination.
It has since become a significant talking point on social media. On Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, the main Ohio train hashtag has been viewed more than 690 million times since the weekend, with more than 40 hashtags created on the topic.
Many Chinese netizens have expressed worry that the incident would turn into a global environmental crisis, and anger over the relatively sparser coverage of the train incident in US media compared to the balloons.
“Turns out the Wandering Balloon was being used to take the heat for Ohio,” a post liked nearly 3,000 times reads.