Last week, the Chinese “spy balloon” caught floating over Montana dominated public discourse on American and Chinese social media platforms alike. While opinions on Twitter and Reddit were varied — some expressing alarm and others criticizing the accusations as racist — Chinese social media users made light of the incident, downplaying the balloon’s significance and poking fun at the U.S. overreaction with jokes and memes. 

On microblogging site Weibo, the hashtag “Chinese unmanned airship accidentally entered U.S. airspace due to uncontrollable forces” has garnered over 680 million views in a week. Many users referred to the airship as the “wandering balloon,” punning on the 2023 Chinese science-fiction blockbuster The Wandering Earth 2. Others joked that the balloon was a sky lantern sent to wish Americans a happy Lantern Festival. 

While the Pentagon believed the object was an “intelligence-gathering balloon,” China’s foreign ministry claimed it was simply a “civilian airship,” used for meteorological research. Most Chinese social media users echoed the state’s position, criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to shoot down the balloon with an Air Force jet last Tuesday.

“Anyone who studied physics in middle school would know that [the balloon] wasn’t intentional,” said the user behind the “Science and Technology Catcher ” account on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, in a video posted on the platform. “The United States is making such a big fuss by sending an F-22 fighter jet [to shoot down] a balloon.” 

Others said the U.S. had overhyped the Chinese threat. “Americans should pay more attention to terrorist attacks instead of a civilian balloon,” a user account named “Shanhang Sees the World” posted on short-video mobile app Kuaishou. In response to the balloon incident, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, canceled a planned trip to Beijing. 

A few social media users, although in the minority, called for a more measured response to U.S. actions, especially at a time when bilateral relations are already so strained. American vigilance towards China was understandable, wrote one user on video-streaming platform Bilibili, since “if [China] found a balloon from Pakistan in Hunan or Hubei, or a Russian balloon in Guangdong or Guangxi, they would also be suspicious.” 

The social media commenters have good reason to be cautious. Amid compounding diplomatic crises between China and the U.S. — from the trade war to ongoing tensions over Taiwan — heated reactions to the balloon incident reveal just how fragile their relationship is today, according to Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. “The giant balloon has captured the attention and interest of the U.S. public to a greater degree than any other story pertaining to the U.S.-China relations in recent memory,” he said, in an emailed response to Rest of World

Compared to previous U.S.-China spats, however, Chinese social media responses to the balloon incident have been relatively lighthearted. Manya Koetse, the founder of What’s On Weibo, a website that tracks and analyzes Chinese social media trends, pointed to the example of Nancy Pelosi’s visit. When the former House Speaker had visited Taiwan last August, social media reaction had had a much more nationalistic tone, Koetse told Rest of World.

How Chinese social media reacts to U.S.-China tensions depends on a whole array of factors, she said: “Who is under attack and who feels attacked? Who is in the lead and who is being favored? Is [the incident] related to pop culture, soft power, or military power?” While Pelosi’s visit was labeled as a “serious provocation” and a threat to Chinese sovereignty, the balloon was characterized as a “civilian” object, and therefore considered harmless. 

Chinese authorities view the country’s social media platforms as an important tool in the “battlefield of public opinion,” across domestic as well as global issues — from Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The platforms have long learned to conform to official narratives, censoring dissenting voices and amplifying patriotic ones. Censorship rules are so pervasive that many social media users have internalized them, regulating each other proactively. 

When the Douyin account “Science and Technology Catcher” used the term “balloon” instead of “airship,” for example, users jumped in to correct him. “Watch out for your wording,” one wrote. “We call it an airship. Only the United States calls it a balloon.”