Nothing About the Chinese Balloon Saga Makes Sense

Plus: The French face "le wokisme," a Tennessee "eyelash specialist license" would require 300 hours education, and more...


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 cancel an attempt to ease diplomatic relations.

The basics: A Chinese balloon started drifting into U.S. territory about 10 days ago. It first entered Alaskan airspace, then drifted over Canada, then made its way back into U.S. airspace, appearing over Montana on February 1. By Saturday, when U.S. forces shot down the balloon, it was floating over the shores of South Carolina.

What the Chinese say: It was "a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes"—a weather balloon, essentially—that veered off course due to westerly winds and "limited self-steering capability."

What Americans are saying: It's a spy balloon! It's an act of open hostility! U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called it "a violation of our sovereignty" and "a violation of international law." House China Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) declared the balloon "a threat to American sovereignty" and "a threat to the Midwest." Mitt Romney used it as an opportunity to call for banning TikTok.

The fallout: Blinken was supposed to visit Beijing this past weekend, on a trip designed to help keep relations cordial and keep lines of communication open between the countries. He was even scheduled to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. But Blinken canceled the trip last week, as the Chinese balloon loomed large (literally and figuratively) over America.

Not only did the balloon nix a diplomatic visit, it's inflaming tensions—and paranoia—here in the States. The balloon is "more fodder for China hawks in Washington, for sure," NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen said on Saturday. Kelemen described the incident as sounding like a story out of the Cold War, which was "exactly what [Blinken's] trip was supposed to prevent."

The absurdity: The balloon in question is absolutely massive, with "an undercarriage roughly the size of three buses," as The New York Times put it. This would be an absolutely bonkers way to spy on the United States—especially since the images it picks up are reportedly no better than those it can obtain through satellites. One defense official said, as summarized The Washington Post, that the images a balloon like this could obtain "wouldn't offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn't collect through spy satellites."

Anyone on the ground could see the balloon in the sky without any sort of specialized equipment. To believe this was meant as a secret spycraft, you'd have to believe the Chinese authorities are just absolute morons, which (whatever else they might be) clearly isn't true.

Some have suggested, alternatively, that it was not meant to be a secret—we were supposed to see it and to feel intimidated. This theory also makes little sense. Why would China act with such belligerence while simultaneously trying to soothe relations through the Blinken visit? And why would the U.S. be intimidated by what is essentially a hot air balloon? A hot air balloon, mind you, that China may have little precise directional control over once it's in the air?

"Experts in national security and aerospace 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," reports The Washington Post, which also notes such vessels are wind-controlled. "These balloons navigate by rising and sinking to find winds blowing in the direction they want to go."

If the balloon can't be precisely controlled from afar, that seems to lend it little use as a spy balloon, but it would fit China's story of a weather balloon that drifted off course.

This thread from entrepreneur and commentator Arnaud Bertrand is worth a read for a healthy dose of skepticism about the idea that China meant to send the balloon to the U.S. for spying purposes.

But, but, but…: There could be new and specialized tech in the balloon that made it easier to guide, some experts say. And some of the weirdness—like the fact that it was floating so low and therefore so easily detectable—could have been mistakes. So we can't entirely rule out the possibility that this was a poorly conceived, badly executed, and oddly timed spy mission.

It's also possible that China did launch this as a spy balloon but that it wasn't intended to fly over the U.S.

"The Chinese would have known that sending a clearly observable balloon into the US heartland would be a provocative action, and they are unlikely to have done so on purpose," says Ars Technica. But this could be a scenario where "the termination mechanism, which is used to bring down a balloon at the end of its desired flight time, failed….The prevailing currents in the stratosphere would appear to support this theory of a drifting balloon the Chinese government had lost control of."

Now that the balloon has been shot down, U.S. authorities should be able to determine more, and maybe we'll get some more definitive answers in the coming days. If authorities can say with more certainty that it was nefarious, we will surely hear about it. If details are sparse and slow to come…well, I think that tells us something, too.

This didn't have to be a big deal, at least not yet. It didn't have to ruin Blinken's diplomatic visit. And it doesn't have to turn into another step on the way to American-Chinese cold war. But an intentional spy balloon makes a much sexier story than a research balloon run amok or "we just don't know yet," and a lot of politicians and press couldn't resist leaning into the former framing.


"Le wokisme." Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the fault lines in France's fights over social justice politics. He describes the scene at a Tocqueville Conversations conference he attended in Normandy:

Onstage with [Rokhaya Diallo] were a political scientist and two philosophy professors, one of whom was the moderator, Perrine Simon-Nahum. Diallo is a well-known and polarizing figure in France, a telegenic proponent 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), making the case that institutional racism afflicts her nation just as it does the U.S., most notably in discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing. Her views would hardly be considered extreme in America, but here she is seen in some quarters as a genuinely subversive agent….

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

Diallo's views were vehemently rejected by other panelists and by the audience, writes Williams. He continues:

By the end of the discussion, I was somewhat shaken. On many discrete points, I tended to agree with the philosophers on the panel. I have made Paris my home for the past 11 years and have been raising French children there for nine of them, which is to say I feel a genuine stake in the culture. I am convinced that it would be a terrible, perhaps even insurmountable, loss to abandon the universalist, color-blind French ideal to the fractured landscape of American tribal identity.

And yet I also felt that something fundamentally unfair had just transpired. France, like America, is constantly evolving. Any attempt to make sense of it will have to take Diallo's arguments seriously. She had tried to share an understanding of French life—one in which growing segments of the French population feel excluded and censured—that her interlocutors could not or would not accept, but that their behavior seemed to confirm.

Read the whole thing here.


Department of occupational licensing run amok:

A proposal in Tennessee would add "providing eyelash services"—defined as "applying and removing a semi-permanent, thread-like, natural or synthetic single fiber to an eyelash"—to cosmetology practices that require specialized licenses. Obtaining an "eyelash specialist license" would require "no less than 300 hours in classroom instruction and practical experience, including at least eight hours of theoretical instruction." Eyelash specialist license applicants would also have to train on "recogniz[ing] the signs of domestic violence, how to respond to these signs, and how to refer a client to resources for victims of domestic violence."


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• Citation, please:

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