Up, Up, and Away: Decoding the Chinese Balloon Frenzy

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For the past few weeks, American mass media outlets have been transfixed by the recent detection of a series of balloons floating over North American airspace. Even the BBC (U.S. edition) replaced the ongoing earthquake disaster in Turkey and Syria as its top headline with updates on the balloons, their destruction, the continuing attempts to determine just what they were, and the subsequent defense of having shot them down in the first place. Since none of these objects were at any time identified to be existential threats, the expensive scrambling of American fighter jets to blast them out of the sky raises an interesting question: why all the fuss? After all, the sky is filled with all sorts of flying objects, and it is hardly news that some of them are spying on us. Heck, so are Google, Facebook, Siri, Alexa, and our smartphones. What made these balloons so special?

On the surface, the whole matter might not appear to be particularly relevant to a popular cultural semiotics analysis. However, the way that it has played out on both social media and the news, not to mention the entertaining theatricality of all those videos of exploding balloons, does have a cultural resonance. An analysis of that resonance can lead us to some conclusions that are worth noting.

As always, with a semiotic analysis, we can begin with the construction of a system of associated and differential phenomena in order to define an interpretable context. It starts with the intense distrust of President Joe Biden on the part of the American conservatives, especially in the wake of his handling of America’s pullout from Afghanistan early in his presidency. This alone has put a great deal of pressure on the President to act decisively in the face of any perceived threat to national security, especially as America gears up for the 2024 presidential election.

Given this, why hasn’t there been even more intense pressure on the president to act with military decisiveness in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which surely presents a threat to our, and the world’s, security? Here, we find a striking difference in the way conservatives regard Russia with respect to China, their support for a former KGB chief, and their opposition to American intervention in Ukraine’s fight for survival. Suffice to say that the “Chinese spy balloon” has instigated far more national security fervor among conservatives than anything that Putin has done (thus taking its place alongside what former president Trump insisted on calling the “China virus”), leading to their demand for governmental action.

All in all, we can see that the PRC, which Richard Nixon began to play off against the USSR in the days of “ping-pong diplomacy" (turning it into the "good" communist country in conservative eyes), is being restored to "enemy" status in right-wing circles. In such an environment, President Biden, whose re-election campaign announcement is expected at any moment, cannot afford to appear to be “soft” on China. Therefore, balloons (three of them turning out to be completely harmless), get expensively shot down in an environment that is, metaphorically and literally, filled with a lot of hot air.


Photo by Tobias Tullius (2020), used under the Unsplash License.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.