From Renmin Ribao (人民网, People’s Daily Online), Feb. 10, 2023, Complete text:

A Chinese civilian unmanned airship unintendedly entered US airspace last week due to force majeure and was shot down by the US military on Saturday [Feb. 4]. For days, US politicians and media have hyped up this incident, claiming it was a spy in the sky. Is this a part of China’s surveillance program or an accidental incident overplayed by US politicians and media to smear China? Here are the facts that People’s Daily Online has collected.

Last Friday, China confirmed that the airship was from China, noting that it was an unintended entry caused by force majeure. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, the balloon was a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off its planned course due to winds and had limited self-steering capability. Once the US spotted the airship, the Chinese side informed the US side of the civilian nature of the airship and conveyed that its entry into the US due to force majeure was unexpected. China has actively communicated with the US and worked with the US to properly handle this unexpected situation in a calm, professional, and restrained manner.

Is China’s explanation reliable? Let’s see the incident from another side.

It is not the first time in the world that balloons for scientific research have gone out of control. In 1998, a Canadian weather balloon – conducting scientific research for the Canadian Space Agency, Environment Canada, and the University of Denver in the US- went rogue due to a technical malfunction. The balloon failed to come down as planned and drifted across Canada toward the Atlantic Ocean. The balloons drifted in the sky for nine days, entered many countries’ airspace, and finally landed on Finland’s Mariehamn Island. The current Chinese balloon is a similar style to the Canadian balloon.

According to a US official, the balloon’s payload – the part under the balloon – is the size of two or three school buses. If the balloon is what the US claimed as “part of an espionage program,” it didn’t make sense for China to choose such a giant balloon- visible to civilians with the naked eye, which the US side would easily detect. Also, the US senior defense official acknowledged that the balloon “never posed a military or physical threat to the American people.”

It is not the first time the US side made groundless accusations against China for spying. However, the US never provided any substantial evidence to prove their suspicion. As a responsible country, China strictly adheres to international law and respects other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As history shows, the US is the number one country in surveillance and reconnaissance. It has long-running intelligence programs across the globe. US aircraft and warships frequently conduct close-in reconnaissance around China, which seriously threatens China’s national security and undermines regional peace and stability. According to the latest data released by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a think tank, in January 2023, 64 sorties of US military land-based reconnaissance aircraft were spotted over the South China Sea.

For a long time, the US has carried out large-scale, organized, and indiscriminate cyber espionage, surveillance, and attacks on foreign governments, enterprises, and individuals violating international law and the basic norms governing international relations. In June 2013, the Guardian and the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA), a US military intelligence agency, has been running PRISM, a clandestine electronic surveillance program, since 2007, whose targets include even its allies. Der Spiegel said that US intelligence might have monitored the German Chancellor’s mobile phone communications for nearly a decade.

In 2021, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) reported that between 2012 and 2014, the NSA used information cables of Denmark to wiretap (spy on) senior officials of Sweden, Norway, France, and Germany, including many political dignitaries such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The US apparently broke its promise that it would stop wiretapping Merkel.

Yet the spy balloon accusation from the US side was seen as clumsy and clunky.

(Editors: Wu Chaolan and Wu Chengliang)