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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China tries to play down balloon dispute with censorship and memes

Outside the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Monday.

By Vivian Wang and Joy Dong

On Chinese social media, jokes about the suspected spy balloon have been making the rounds. People quipped that the vessel was a misunderstood attempt at wishing Americans a happy Lantern Festival, the Chinese holiday this past Sunday. Others compared it to a glutinous rice ball, a traditional food eaten during the celebrations.

The wisecracking was, in part, what happens on social media anywhere in the world: current events transformed to memes to attract likes and follows. But it also dovetailed with signs of a broader government strategy to downplay an incident that has potentially embarrassed China and threatened to further derail U.S.-China relations.

The Chinese authorities, who have tried to convince the Americans that their furor over the balloon is an overreaction to a meteorological vessel blown off course, are also deploying their sprawling propaganda apparatus to control discussion at home. By limiting news coverage and curating online conversation, they are working to ensure that the balloon avoids becoming not only an international headache but a domestic one, too.

The approach points to the potentially tricky balancing act China faces. Beijing needs to look strong. Anti-American sentiment has risen markedly in recent years, often fanned by the government, and the downing of the Chinese balloon by a U.S. fighter jet stoked some cries for retribution. On Tuesday, after a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the United States for saying it had no plans to return the balloon’s parts to China, social media commenters said China now had ample grounds to treat American vessels however it liked.

But China may be eager to put the balloon behind it. Officials appeared to have been caught off guard by the incident, as shown by their rare expression of regret when first publicly confronted about it. In addition, after three years of harsh coronavirus controls, China is looking to restart its economy and re-enter the global stage — an agenda that was supposed to be helped by a visit to Beijing this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Blinken’s visit has now been postponed indefinitely because of the diplomatic uproar over the balloon. The Chinese government may be looking to minimize further damage.

Its apparent permission of humorous responses over more substantive debate could be an effort to allow an outlet for nationalist feeling, said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“It’s probably an effort to mollify domestic sentiment,” he said, “but also trying not to let things blow out of control.” He continued: “I think it’s the leadership trying to thread the needle between their different interests.”

A more low-key approach could also help China dodge potentially awkward questions at home about how it lost a Chinese airship, no matter its purpose, and its recent admission of a second — it claims also wayward — balloon over Colombia. State media has largely avoided covering the saga, other than carrying the foreign ministry’s statements.

China’s official narrative and the public response it has helped shape differ sharply from those of other recent incidents that have strained U.S.-China tensions, most notably the visit last August to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Then, Chinese officials and state media egged on the vitriolic nationalism that dominated online, as users called for the military to shoot down her plane or invade Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

There was little sign of a similar official campaign this time, said Xiao Qiang, a researcher on Chinese censorship at the University of California, Berkeley.

Still, that did not mean there was a lack of interest in the balloon among Chinese users. Various hashtags about it were among the top trending topics on Weibo in recent days; one early hashtag, claiming the balloon had strayed into U.S. airspace by force majeure, racked up 670 million views.

But the tone of many of the posts was humorous. One of the most popular memes declared the vessel “The Wandering Balloon” — a play on “The Wandering Earth 2,” a Chinese science fiction movie currently dominating the country’s box office. Users turned photos of the balloon into movie posters. Others edited a pair of chopsticks around the balloon, to emphasize its resemblance to the white sticky rice balls eaten at this time of year.

The lighthearted response may have been in part organic, said Manya Koetse, the editor of What’s on Weibo, a website that tracks chatter on the Chinese social media platform. The end of COVID restrictions and the recent Lunar New Year holiday, on top of the popularity of the Wandering Earth film (which is about how China saves the world) have likely fed renewed confidence among many Chinese.

That confidence was on display in the half-mocking, half-swaggering online jokes that proliferated online. “Breaking news: Last night, China launched tens of thousands of giant balloons,” one blogger with 1.2 million followers on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, wrote alongside a video of Lantern Festival festivities.

“The F-22 doesn’t have enough missiles,” one user replied, referring to the U.S. fighter jet that shot down the balloon.

“They say, ‘Oh you feel threatened over a weather balloon — that’s kind of sad, it shows how scared you are of a rising China,’” Koetse said.

But China’s internet is tightly regulated, especially when it comes to hot topics or politics. And on this issue, too, the government was working to guide public opinion.

By Tuesday, the hashtag “Wandering Balloon” no longer yielded results, with Weibo citing “relevant laws and regulations.” Another hashtag, about the second Chinese balloon over Latin America, was also censored after briefly topping the hot search ranking on Monday.

There was also relatively little serious analysis about the potential damage to U.S.-China relations, or outright questioning of the government’s denial of spying. (Some commenters did express skepticism about whether the balloon had truly been a civilian craft, but obliquely, most likely to avoid censorship.)

Those who did offer political analysis largely blamed the United States, focusing on how American domestic politics was creating pressure for President Joe Biden to appear tough on China. The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid and one of the few official publications to weigh in on the debate beyond the foreign ministry’s statements, quoted Chinese scholars who argued that the United States was “hyping” the incident in order to contain China’s rise and try to gain an edge in future negotiations.

Still, some other more aggressive posts have disappeared. A day before the Global Times piece was published, a different version of the article had appeared on its website, more stridently accusing the U.S. government of trying to create a new Cold War and manipulating its own people. That one is no longer available.

“They still, to some degree, want to mend the relationship with the U.S., so this is not the time to mobilize the whole internet to go after the United States,” Xiao, at Berkeley, said of the Chinese authorities.

Even if China does not succeed in smoothing over tensions with the United States, at least in the short term, there is another benefit to Beijing in allowing, or forcing, the issue to fade.

No matter the true purpose of the operation — whether it was a mission for weather data or a spying expedition — it clearly was botched. And in a country where the government has encouraged people to reflexively see accusations of Chinese wrongdoing as fabricated, Beijing’s acknowledgment of even some truth to the incident prompted some disorientation.

One of the most-liked comments under a state media Weibo post about the foreign ministry’s explanation that the balloon had flown off course read simply: “So it really is from our country …”

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