The origin and purpose of the Chinese balloon over US airspace is unclear

Nothing about the “Chinese spy balloon” story makes sense — but that hasn’t stopped U.S. officials from using it to stoke anti-China sentiment and derail efforts to ease diplomatic relations.

Basics: The Chinese balloon started floating towards the US territory about 10 days ago. It first entered Alaskan airspace, then hovered over Canada, then returned to US airspace, appearing over Montana on February 1. It was hovering over the coast of South Carolina until Saturday, when US forces shot down the balloon.

What the Chinese say: It he was “a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes”—essentially a weather balloon—that was blown off course by westerly winds and “limited self-steering capability.”

What Americans say: It’s a spy balloon! It is an act of open hostility! US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called it “a violation of our sovereignty” and “a violation of international law.” China Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) called the balloon a “threat to American sovereignty” and a “threat to the Midwest.” Mitt Romney used it as an opportunity to are calling for a ban on TikTok.

Consequences: Blinken was due to visit Beijing last weekend, on a trip designed to help maintain cordial relations and keep lines of communication open between the countries. He was even supposed to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But Blinken canceled the trip last week, as the Chinese bubble loomed (literally and figuratively) over America.

Not only has the balloon prevented a diplomatic visit, it is fueling tensions—and paranoia—here in the United States. The balloon is “certainly more fodder for the China hawks in Washington,” NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen said Saturday. Kelemen described the incident as sounding like a Cold War story, which was “exactly like that [Blinken’s] the trip should have been prevented.”

Absurdity: The balloon in question is absolutely massive, with “an undercarriage about the size of three buses,” like The New York Times put This would be an absolutely insane way to spy on the United States—especially since the pictures it takes are supposedly no better than the ones it can get via satellite. One defense official said, as summarized The Washington Postthat the images a balloon like this one could get “wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t gather through spy satellites.”

Anyone on earth could see a balloon in the sky without any special equipment. To believe that this was intended as a secret spy skill, you’d have to believe that the Chinese authorities are just absolute morons, which (whatever else they are) is clearly not true.

Some have suggested, alternatively, that it shouldn’t have been a secret – we were should have seen and feel intimidated. This theory also doesn’t make much sense. Why would China act so belligerently while simultaneously trying to calm relations with Blinken’s visit? And why would the US be afraid of what is essentially a hot air balloon? A hot air balloon, remember, China may not have precise control over the direction once it takes off?

“National security and aviation experts said the craft appeared to share characteristics with high-altitude balloons used by developed countries around the world for weather forecasting, telecommunications and scientific research,” he reported. The Washington Post, who also notes that such vessels are controlled by the wind. “These balloons move by rising and sinking to find the winds blowing in the direction they want.”

If the balloon can’t be precisely controlled from afar, that doesn’t seem to give it much use as a spy balloon, but it would fit the Chinese story of a weather balloon that went off course.

This thread by entrepreneur and commentator Arnaud Bertrand is worth reading for a healthy dose of skepticism about the idea that China intended to send the balloon to the US for espionage purposes.

But, but, but…: There could to be a new and specialized technology in the balloon that made it easier to manage, some experts say. And some of the oddities—like the fact that it hovered so low and was therefore so easy to detect—could there were mistakes. Therefore, we cannot completely rule out the possibility that this was a poorly conceived, poorly executed and strangely timed spy mission.

It is also possible that China launched this as a spy balloon, but that it was not intended to fly over the US

“The Chinese would know that sending a clearly visible balloon into the center of the US would be a provocative action and it is unlikely that they did it on purpose,” he says. Ars Technica. But this could be a scenario where “the abort mechanism, which is used to lower the balloon at the end of its desired flight time, has failed… prevailing currents in the stratosphere seems to support this theory of a floating balloon over which the Chinese government has lost control.”

Now that the balloon has been shot down, US authorities should be able to determine more, and we may get some more definitive answers in the coming days. If the authorities can say with more certainty that it was evil, we will certainly hear about it. If details are rare and slow to come…well, I think that tells us something too.

At least this didn’t have to be a big deal not yet. It didn’t have to spoil Blinken’s diplomatic visit. And it doesn’t have to turn into another step in the US-China Cold War. But a deliberate spy bubble makes a much sexier story than a research bubble gone wild or “we just don’t know yet,” and many politicians and the press couldn’t resist leaning on the former frame.


“Vocism.” Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the curves in French struggles over social justice politics. He describes the scene at the Tocqueville Conversations conference he attended in Normandy:

On stage with [Rokhaya Diallo] there were a political scientist and two professors of philosophy, one of whom was the moderator, Perrine Simon-Nahum. Diallo is a well-known and polarizing figure in France, a telegenic advocate of identity politics with a large social media following. She draws parallels between the French and American criminal justice systems (one of her documentaries is called From Paris to Ferguson), arguing that institutional racism afflicts her nation just as it does the US, most notably in discriminatory policing. Her views would hardly be considered extreme in America, but here in some circles she is seen as a true subversive agent…

“The circulation of knowledge is also the circulation of experiences,” Diallo replied [to a question about shaping citizens in a democracy]. “Some minority experiences can now be more visible” thanks to social media. This presents a much-needed challenge to traditional “elite” knowledge production, which, she said, has “filtered out” certain perspectives in the past. This claim was undisputed. A few weeks after this conference, Emmanuel Macron will become the first French president to participate in the commemoration of the 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters by the police in Paris. Most French people I know have never encountered this event either in school or in traditional media.

Diallo’s views were roundly dismissed by other panelists and the audience, Williams writes. He continues:

By the end of the discussion I was a bit shaken. On many discrete points I was inclined to agree with the philosophers on the panel. Paris has been my home for the past 11 years and I’ve raised French children for nine of those, which means I feel a real stake in the culture. I am convinced that it would be a terrible, perhaps even an insurmountable loss to abandon the universalist, color-blind French ideal in the fractured landscape of American tribal identity.

And yet I also felt that something fundamentally unfair had just happened. France, like America, is constantly developing. Any attempt to understand this will have to take Diallo’s arguments seriously. She tried to share an understanding of French life – one in which growing segments of the French population feel excluded and censored – that her interlocutors could not or would not accept, but that their behavior seemed to confirm.

Read the whole thing here.


The Occupational Licensing Department is rampant:

He would add a proposal in Tennessee “providing eyelash services”—defined as “the application and removal of a semi-permanent, reticulated, natural or synthetic individual eyelash”—to cosmetology practices that require specialized licenses. Getting “lash specialist license” would require “no less than 300 hours of classroom instruction and hands-on experience, including a minimum of eight hours of theory.” Applicants for a lash specialist license would also have to train at a “recognize[ing] signs of domestic violence, how to react to these signs and how to refer the client to resources for victims of domestic violence.”


• President Joe Biden will deliver his 2023 State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

• A federal court declared unconstitutional a law that prohibits marijuana users from owning guns.

• Citation, please:

• After losing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, the Federal Trade Commission is “preparing a potential antitrust lawsuit against Amazon…that could challenge a number of the tech giant’s business practices as anticompetitive in the coming months,” it reports The The Wall Street Journal.

• Offices are still much less full than they were before the pandemic.

• Proposed new nutritional standards for school meals would limit added sugars.

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