Hysteria about that balloon another example of unwarranted fears about China


Editor's note: Anthony Moretti, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is an associate professor at the Department of Communication and Organizational Leadership at Robert Morris University. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The hysteria in the United States about that Chinese "spy" balloon was nothing but hot air.

The Pentagon confirmed that the balloon, which slowly made its way in February across the U.S., did not collect any data that might have put national security at risk. Yes, that was the same balloon that U.S. President Joe Biden authorized the military to obliterate once it had passed over land and hovered over the Atlantic Ocean.

A Pentagon spokesman suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies had successfully crafted countermeasures that prevented the balloon from transmitting any information. The U.S. government continues to insist that because those measures were necessary, the balloon must be called a "spy" balloon, not a weather one as the Chinese government maintains. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said, "The U.S. calling it a spy balloon is nothing but a smear against China." 

If these unidentified countermeasures were in fact used and were in fact successful, then what do we make of mainstream media reporting from April that said something much different? 

NBC News fed into the unending fears about the balloon when it reported that three people – including two who were working for the U.S. government – had concluded it "was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive American military sites, despite the Biden administration's efforts to block it from doing so." CNN reported at the same time that the balloon "was able to capture imagery and collect some signals intelligence from U.S. military sites." 

Were these examples of "fake" news, bad reporting or deliberate attempts to further damage China's credibility in the U.S.?

A couple of days before the announcement from the Pentagon, The Wall Street Journal reported that the balloon was "loaded with American-made equipment," a finding that undoubtedly will be used by Republicans and other critics in an attempt to further embarrass the White House and the Pentagon. Yet, that story makes clear that the equipment was commercially available, meaning if any equipment had been purchased, it was done so legally.

The balloon saga must now be classified a failure in the same way as the U.S. Department of Justice's "China Initiative" announced in 2018. Then President Donald Trump wanted you and me to believe that many Chinese-born scholars working at U.S. universities were actually trying to gather sensitive American military and technology information that they would deliver to China.  

The effort to punish these innocent scholars was all the more corrosive whenever universities that employed them assisted government lawyers. In perhaps the most high-profile example, the University of Tennessee admitted its role in providing information to the government that contributed to the prosecution of Hu Anming, who was accused of fraud and making false statements. While he was under house arrest, Hu was not able to step outside to get any fresh air. If he had done so, the leg monitor he was forced to wear in order to track his movements would have alerted authorities.

Those charges against Hu were eventually thrown out by a judge, and a juror later added that "it was the most ridiculous case." The juror also commented on the FBI, saying, "If this is who is protecting America, we've got problems." The Biden administration eliminated the China Initiative program in February 2022, meaning it took the administration 13 months, dating to when Biden became president in January 2021, to conclude what civil rights groups and millions of Americans with common sense had already determined: The program was a direct attack on Chinese scholars and by extension Asian-American scholars, many of whom had been in the United States for years and who had always demonstrated exemplary behavior. 

Meanwhile, more and more U.S. colleges are ending a relationship-building effort between the U.S. and China. The latest example is Alfred University, which opted to close the Confucius Institute that had been operating on that campus. 

A screenshot of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party's announcement that Alfred University will close its Confucius Institute.
A screenshot of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party's announcement that Alfred University will close its Confucius Institute.

A screenshot of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party's announcement that Alfred University will close its Confucius Institute.

Alfred University had received a federal grant a little more than a year ago allowing it to examine hypersonic weapons, but a 2021 federal law prevents any university from receiving federal grant dollars if it hosts a Confucius Institute. 

In case you are wondering, no, there appears to be no history of any Confucius Institute in the U.S. being linked to spying for China. The first such institute in the U.S. opened in 2004. 

Hysteria serves no positive purpose. It can foster hate and can cause poor decision-making. Multiple examples of the negative effects of hysteria remain evident in the U.S.: flawed conversations about balloons, the indiscriminate prosecutions of Chinese-born scholars, and the ill-timed efforts to end American students learning more about Chinese language and culture.

America can be better than this.

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