China tries to play down balloon dispute with censorship and memes

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On Chinese social media, jokes about the alleged spy balloon have been doing the rounds. People joked that the ship was a misunderstood attempt to wish Americans a happy Lantern Festival, the Chinese holiday last Sunday. Others have compared it to a dumpling of sticky rice, a traditional food eaten at festivals.

Wisecracking was, in part, what happens on social media all over the world: current events turned into memes to attract likes and follows. But it was also consistent with signs of a broader government strategy to downplay an incident that potentially embarrassed China and threatened to further derail US-China relations.

Chinese officials, who have tried to convince Americans that their fury over the balloon is an overreaction to an off-course weather ship, are also deploying their sprawling propaganda apparatus to control talk at home. By limiting media coverage and organizing the conversation online, they work to ensure that the ball does not just become an international headache, but also a national headache.

The approach highlights the potentially tricky balancing act that China faces. Beijing must look strong. Anti-American sentiment has risen markedly in recent years, often stoked by the government, and the downing of the Chinese balloon by an American fighter jet has sparked cries of retaliation. On Tuesday, after a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman criticized the United States for saying it had no intention of returning the balloon parts to China, social media commentators said China now had ample reason to treat American ships as it saw fit.

But China may be keen to put the ball behind them. Officials appeared to have been caught off guard by the incident, as seen in their rare expression of regret when first confronted publicly about it. Additionally, after three years of tough coronavirus controls, China is seeking to restart its economy and re-enter the world stage — a program that was expected to be aided by a visit to Beijing this week by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. Mr Blinken’s visit has now been postponed indefinitely due to the diplomatic uproar over the ball. The Chinese government may seek to minimize further damage.

His apparent permission for humorous responses to more substantial debate could be an effort to allow an outlet for nationalist sentiment, said Chong Ja IanAssociate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

“It’s probably an effort to soothe the inner feeling,” he said, “but also to try not to let things get out of control.” He continued, “I think it’s the leaders trying to bridge their different interests.”

A more low-key approach could also help China dodge potentially embarrassing questions about how it lost a Chinese airship, whatever its purpose, and its recent admission of a second balloon – which it also claims was temperamental – at the above Colombia. State media has largely avoided covering the saga, other than broadcasting statements from the Foreign Office.

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

There were few signs of a similar official campaign this time, said Xiao Qiangresearcher on Chinese censorship at the University of California at Berkeley.

Still, that didn’t mean there was a lack of interest in the ball among Chinese users. Various hashtags about it were among the top trending topics on Weibo in recent days; a first hashtag, claiming the balloon strayed into US airspace by force majeure, racked up 670 million views.

But the tone of many messages was humorous. One of the most popular memes said the ship “The Wandering Balloon” – a play on “The Wandering Earth 2”, a Chinese sci-fi movie that is currently dominating the country’s box office. Users have turned photos of the balloon into movie posters. Others mounted a pair of chopsticks around the ball, to emphasize its resemblance to the sticky white rice balls eaten at this time of year.

The cheerful response may have been partly organic, said Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What’s new on Weibo, a website that tracks conversations on the Chinese social media platform. The end of Covid restrictions and the recent Lunar New Year holidays, in addition to the popularity of the film Wandering Earth (which tells how China saves the world) have probably revived the confidence of many Chinese.

This confidence has manifested itself in the half-mocking, half-arrogant online jokes that have proliferated online. “Breaking news: last night China launched tens of thousands of giant balloons,” said a blogger with 1.2 million followers on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, writing alongside a video of the Lantern Festival festivities.

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

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

But the Internet in China is tightly regulated, especially when it comes to current affairs or politics. And on this issue, too, the government was working to guide public opinion.

On Tuesday, the “Wandering Balloon” hashtag no longer yielded results, with Weibo quoting “relevant laws and regulations”. Another hashtag, about China’s second ball above Latin America, was also censored after briefly topping the hot search rankings on Monday.

There was also relatively little serious analysis of the potential damage to US-China relations, or outright questioning of the government’s refusal to spy. (Some commentators expressed skepticism as to whether the balloon had really been a civilian craft, but sideways, most likely to dodge censorship.)

Those who offered political analysis largely blamed the United States, focusing on how domestic American politics were creating pressure for President Biden to get tough on China. The Global Times, a state-owned tabloid and one of the few official publications to weigh in on the debate beyond statements by the Foreign Office, cited Chinese scholars who argued that the United States was “highlighting” the incident in order to contain China’s rise and try to gain an advantage in future negotiations.

However, some other more aggressive messages have disappeared. A day before the publication of the Global Times article, a different version of the article had appeared on its website, more vehemently accusing the United States government of trying to create a new Cold War and manipulate its own people. This one is no longer available.

“They still want, to some extent, to mend relations with the United States, so now is not the time to mobilize the entire internet to go after the United States,” Xiao said, at Berkeley. , about the Chinese authorities.

Even if China fails to ease tensions with the United States, at least in the short term, there is another advantage for Beijing in allowing, or forcing, the problem to fade away.

Whatever the real purpose of the operation – be it a weather data collection mission or a spy expedition – it was clearly botched. And in a country where the government has encouraged people to reflexively view accusations of Chinese wrongdoing as fabricated, Beijing’s acknowledgment of some truth about the incident has caused some disorientation.

One of the most popular comments under a state media Weibo article on the Foreign Ministry’s explanation that the ball veered off course just read: “So it’s really from our country…”