China is a real threat but not the one of right-wing fever dreams
MAGA used the Chinese spy balloon to exaggerate the Chinese threat, casting Trump as China’s main adversary and downplaying Biden’s actions to counter Beijing's ambitions.
If you read this newsletter, then I probably don’t need to tell you about the viral “Chinese spy balloon” story because it was everywhere. After the balloon was spotted by someone in Montana, the story spread around the internet, went viral in MAGA media, got picked up by mainstream media outlets and was discussed ad nauseum for a few days until the balloon itself left the continental United States and appeared above the Atlantic Ocean, where it was finally shot down. Even then, the tale didn’t quite die until it became an SNL skit. I called the emerging narratives essentially a non-story at the time, and I believe at the time it was due to the real lack of clarity and details we heard through the noise and hysteria coming from the right. As more facts have emerged, there is a story to be told here, but it’s got little in common with the one MAGA media were selling to their audience.
After the balloon was first spotted, the government claimed they weren’t shooting the balloon down over fears of debris falling down to the earth and injuring people and property in the United States. Biden said he wanted to shoot the balloon down on Wednesday (February 1st) but decided not to order this on advice of his staff. Whether this was the right call is above my pay grade, but it seems a rational explanation and concern. After all, imagine the furor if Biden did shoot down the balloon over Montana or Iowa or any other place in the United States and property damage occurred, much less any loss of life. The right would’ve said Biden did this on Xi Jinping’s orders, and MAGA would’ve believed it or at least pretended to. Remember, in their telling of our politics, “Beijing Biden” is “owned” by the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, any actions he takes related to China are done to Xi Jinping’s greatest benefit.
All of this led me to believe we need to have a real discussion about what China is and isn’t, what the threat is and isn’t and what MAGA’s cynical game is really all about here.
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How the right-wing Chinese spy balloon narratives evolved
First, let’s break down the way the Chinese spy balloon narratives unfolded. On Thursday, February 2nd, the Pentagon announced that a Chinese spy balloon had been spotted over Montana, but it was choosing not to shoot it down due to risks related to falling debris. This was immediately taken by MAGA to mean Biden was ignoring the issue and allowing the balloon to fly over the United States to collect topographic, signals or other intelligence. Former Team Trump staffer and deputy spokesman for Kevin McCarthy, Chad Gilmartin, shared this sentiment repeatedly on Twitter.
Rest assured, Gilmartin’s criticism echoed similar statements from trolls and influencers who raged about “Beijing Biden” and “China Joe’s” indifference to the balloon and his supposed deference to China. They simply wouldn’t buy the idea that the debris from the balloon was worth worrying about. Perhaps it was unlikely to cause any serious damage on the ground, but perhaps also it was unclear what was inside the balloon and thus impossible to know what the debris field would look like.
The unknown details of course led to a variety of theories about what the balloon might be doing here. These quickly went into the stratosphere of absurdity. Was it an EMP, a bioweapon carrying a pathogen more deadly than COVID-19? A bomb? The start of the Chinese invasion? The balloon may as well have been the opening scene of a reimagined Red Dawn. It was, effectively, the end of days, and Joe Biden was letting it happen to us!
Around this time over on Truth Social, Trump “re-truthed” a post from Jack Posobiec claiming Biden allowed the balloon to fly over the U.S. because “we are owned” by the Chinese government.
But you know who would’ve shot down this spy balloon? President Donald Trump, of course, because he was so tough on China!
Except for all the times he wasn’t.
After stories started to emerge that there were indeed three Chinese spy balloons which flew over the United States during the Trump presidency, Trump again took to Truth Social to deny this happened. He claimed it was spin from the Biden White House to “take the ‘heat’ off” of Biden for his inaction.
As of this writing, Trump remains steadfast that he knew nothing about Chinese spy balloons during his time in office despite much credible evidence that these flights did in fact happen making its way to the press. Given these denials, the MAGA media space adjusted their narrative accordingly. Did they know these were Chinese balloons when Trump was president? When did they know? Was Trump aware? When was Trump made aware? What actions did he take? Those nuances could lead to unfavorable conclusions. The easier excuse was then the most obvious choice for them to make. Maybe the balloons did fly over the United States while Trump was president, but he’s only denying it because the “Deep State” never told him about it. He only thinks there were no Chinese spy balloons because the “traitors” in government betrayed him once again.
With this point resolved and Trump absolved of any guilt or potential embarrassment, the influencers moved on to other ways to attack Joe Biden.
What’s the reality of our situation with Beijing?
The Pentagon maintains that they took actions to make the balloon’s attempts at spying or reconnaissance ineffective while it flew across the United States, and the balloon was downed once it could be done without concern for loss of life. Can we trust this explanation? Should we? While it’s plausible, it’s difficult to know with any certainty if they could effectively prevent the balloon from gathering intelligence. Perhaps they can, but then again, how much did it actually matter in the first place?
Q: How much damage did this overflight do to national security?
A: “Little to none, compared to the extensive cyber penetrations and human spying activities,” the former senior intelligence officer told me. “China takes terabytes of data” from defense industries and other sites “on a regular basis.” An “expansive human spy network” targets industry and academic organizations. In short, the balloons might have given the Chinese a little extra information, but nothing to justify the panic that some pundits and Biden critics tried to stir.
But then, the panic and criticism directed at Joe Biden was always the point. Make no mistake, China wishes to supplant the United States as the world’s superpower at our expense. We’ve seen the aggressive actions Beijing is willing to take, such as the decision to send troops into Hong Kong to put an end to the “one country, two systems” policy. This was carried out while Trump was president, and he did sanction Chinese government officials for their actions—though he refused his aides’ advice to condemn Xi over his anti-Democratic actions. After the Hong Kong protestors were put under Beijing’s thumb, Trump continued to trust and praise the leadership of Xi Jinping even as his worst mistakes in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
There are true hawks on China within the Republican party, but the evidence is clear that Donald Trump isn’t really one of them. Still, he’s fine with pretending to be one when it suits him politically. China loves nothing more than to appear stronger than they actually are on the world stage, and MAGA is far less concerned with helping China than they are with hurting Biden. While the Chinese threat is real, they are not the all-powerful juggernaut presented by many on the right. Even today, there are serious problems with no easy solutions that Xi must contend with at home. The country is dealing with massive population decline, serious supply chain issues and economic turmoil exacerbated by Xi’s failed “zero-COVID” policy. If the goal is to defeat China in this ongoing Cold War, why is pro-Trump media more interested in a balloon than the defects in China’s authoritarian rule?
The right-wing narratives consistently reinforce claims of how tough Trump was on China and how weak Biden has been. By making Xi and the CCP out to be a bigger threat, it makes Biden’s supposed weakness even more unforgivable and Trump’s supposed strength ever more necessary. It’s not reality, but it’s the perceived reality their audience has been sold on. MAGA vs. the CCP is essentially WWE-style kayfabe that benefits both sides. Beijing is making plans to invade and seize Taiwan within the next few years, but by ignoring the very real issues Xi must contend with at home—most of them largely his own doing—pro-Trump media are helping Xi hold on to power and expand his influence because he appears stronger than he actually is.
What’s the real status of our relations with China?
The reality is that while there were plenty of China hawks around Trump while he was in the White House, he rarely showed much teeth against Beijing’s aggressive actions. His rhetoric may have been tough on Beijing, but Trump would often praise Xi and said of their relationship, “We love each other.” When Trump was on his adviser’s script, he would go hard on China, but the ad-lib or unfiltered Trump tweets would be far more submissive towards the Chinese government and its leader. No, Trump’s rhetoric with China was never the type of effusive and frankly embarrassing love he showed for Vladimir Putin, but he still saw plenty to like in the strong, authoritarian tendencies of China’s leader. It’s important to realize the divide there. Trump may have been tough on China some of the time, but he was also jealous of Xi’s unopposed rule.
Trump waffled on harsh measures against the Chinese government plenty. He wavered on sanctions to Chinese telecom company ZTE was known to be carrying out data collection and spying on citizens in the developing countries and our Western allies where they were allowed to operate.
As Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, wrote of Trump’s behavior towards China:
Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S. national interests. Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.
Take Trump’s handling of the threats posed by the Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE. Ross and others repeatedly pushed to strictly enforce U.S. regulations and criminal laws against fraudulent conduct, including both firms’ flouting of U.S. sanctions against Iran and other rogue states. The most important goal for Chinese “companies” like Huawei and ZTE is to infiltrate telecommunications and information-technology systems, notably 5G, and subject them to Chinese control (though both companies, of course, dispute the U.S. characterization of their activities).
Trump, by contrast, saw this not as a policy issue to be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal gestures to Xi. In 2018, for example, he reversed penalties that Ross and the Commerce Department had imposed on ZTE. In 2019, he offered to reverse criminal prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade deal—which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020.
At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.
As Bolton said, Trump’s highest priority was getting re-elected while he was president. With 2024 being his last real chance of winning again, should we expect anything different from Trump and MAGA media this time around?
Outside of the partisan echo chambers, it’s clear Joe Biden does seem to be taking the Chinese threat seriously. The United States is increasing its military presence in the Pacific, with agreements in place for a larger American presence in Japan and additional U.S. bases in the Philippines to counter China’s ambitions in the region. The Biden administration also agreed a $180 million arms sale to Taiwan in December, and is actively fighting China on the technology front—imposing export controls on American superconductor technology and barring American citizens and companies from assisting Chinese companies in the development of advanced chip technologies. The Chinese companies which have supplied military aid to the Russian government have been sanctioned, and given this, there is an awareness in Beijing that state-sponsored aid to the Russian war effort would result in sanctions which could have a catastrophic effect on the Chinese economy. Similar sanctions have devastated the Russian economy, and while Xi may be willing to accept these consequences if he captures Taiwan in return, he isn’t going to take that chance to help Putin.
If we want to win this Cold War, then we need to be honest about our enemy’s strengths and exploit his weaknesses. The reality is MAGA isn’t focused on coming out on top against the increasing threat from Beijing. They’re focused on beating Joe Biden in the next election.
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