The real lesson learned from the balloon episode

David Baverez
3 min readFeb 21, 2023

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David Baverez ©Bruno Klein

“Letter from Asia” published in L’Opinion, 14th February 2023.

The Chinese “weather balloon” episode tells the West more about China than it tells China about the United States.

It is already extremely rare for China to officially apologize to another country, so, given the present situation, it is even more surprising that it has apologized to the United States. The explanation is undoubtedly to be found in the lack of coordination among those at the top of the Chinese government, showing, in the words of former Prime Minister Wen Jibao, one of the four “U’s” that characterise the country: “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.”

The episode of the Chinese “weather balloon” and its appearance in the sky over the USA reveals the lack of cohesion in Beijing, due to the strong opposition that still exists between two Chinas that continue to be in conflict, even after the 20th Party Congress. On the one side is the China that is undoubtedly home to the most enterprising population in the world. It was running around like a headless chicken during the whole of 2022, and has now been running like a rabbit [translator’s note: just a reference to 2023 being the Chinese year of the rabbit, with no implication of running scared] since January 2023. This is a China that is putting its economic growth back into operation with surprising speed, as if better to confound the skepticism of Western experts. It is a China embodied by the presence at Davos of its brilliant Minister of the Economy, Liu He, who, before being booted out of the government, was attempting to convince the West that private capital still had its place in the China of the future. On the other side is the China of the hard Party line. It emerged as the winner at the 20th Party Congress, is reluctant to make any compromises in the battle to de-Westernize the world, and is ready to oppose any attempt to improve — even temporarily — relations with the United States.

The lack of coordination among those at the top of the Chinese government shows, in the words of former Prime Minister Wen Jibao, one of the four “U-s” that characterize the country: “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.”

Stormy weather. The “full powers” recently granted to President Xi no longer seem “limitless” in the eyes of the West. On his right, he had a vengeful reminder from the economy last December, since the fall in oil consumption in 2022 raised the prospect of a real drop in GNP during the year, necessitating a U-turn that brought an end to the “zero-Covid” policy. On his left, the followers of “Chinese-style Leninist Marxism” seem to have lost their patience on hearing the government advocate the need for a pragmatic policy only two months after singing the praises of ideological propaganda during the 20th Party Congress.

Two Chinas continue to be in conflict: the China of the most enterprising people in the world who were running around in 2022 like a headless chicken and have now now been running like a rabbit since January 2023. On the other side is the China of the hard Party line, reluctant to make any compromises in the battle for the de-Westernization of the world.

It is these “old comrades” that, via nothing more than a balloon over the USA — not at all offensive in military terms, but with explosive symbolism — are seeking to temper our enthusiasm for the benefits of economic recovery in China, and augur a far less favorable climate post-2023.

As the American government has publicly stated, the balloon wouldn’t have given China much military information about the USA. In fact, it tells us more about the political situation in China since the 20th Party Congress. Wen Jiabo’s four “U’s” did not disappear during the “zero-Covid” period; they herald stormy weather to come for this second Cold War between the USA and China. The resulting tensions will increasingly affect Europeans’ daily lives.

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David Baverez

Business angel / demon. Based in Hong Kong since 2011. Columnist, author, speaker.