Who's afraid of Pooh's balloons?

Andrew Donaldson on growing Western worries over Chinese espionage


SOMEONE had to ask, and why not? Area 51 looms large in the American psyche, and the downing of three unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, over the US and Canada in the past week threw up widespread speculation that they could be related to extra-terrestrial life forms, perhaps from some distant galaxy. Not so, said the White House on Monday.

But such a possibility was not initially dismissed. Speaking at a Pentagon press briefing on Sunday, General Glen Van Herck, the military commander overseeing North American airspace, answered the question thus: “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven’t ruled out anything.” 

According to a Reuters report, the US military was unable to immediately establish how these three objects were kept aloft or where they were coming from. “We’re calling them ‘objects’, not ‘balloons’, for a reason,” VanHerck added. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The Pentagon has in recent years increased its efforts to investigate sightings of what is now, in US government-speak, referred to as “unidentified aerial phenomena”. 

A department cryptically known as the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office filed its first report to Congress in June 2021: it had examined 144 UAP sightings by military aviators dating back to 2004. One incident was attributed to a large balloon; the rest were unexplained. Last month it was reported that an additional 366 such sightings were found to be drones, balloons, birds or other “airborne clutter”. But a further 171 remain officially unidentified.

There are, in other words, things out there. I suspect, however, that they are not “alien” or extra-terrestrial. Perhaps the surest sign of intelligent life beyond the stars is the determination of such beings to stay the hell away from us.

That said, evidence suggests it is the Chinese who are flinging these objects up into “near space” to spy on the West. While US investigators have not yet found any evidence to connect the three downed objects to China’s balloon surveillance programme, or any other country’s spy operations, the same cannot be said of the balloon shot down on 4 February.

The “significant debris” gathered from this incident has bolstered a White House claim that Beijing has been using high-altitude balloons to spy on the US and its allies for many years. All of the balloon’s “priority sensor and electronics pieces” have been recovered, the US Northern Command said in a statement.

The events of the past ten days have prompted a renewed attack on the Biden administration by Republicans who accuse it of not disclosing information about the spy programme. However, US national security council spokesman John Kirby said China’s activities date back to Donald Trump’s presidency, which was oblivious to the threat.

“It was operating during the previous administration,” Kirby said, “but they did not detect it. We detected it, we tracked it. And we have been carefully studying to learn as much as we can. We know that these PRC [People’s Republic of China] surveillance balloons have crossed over dozens of countries on multiple continents around the world, including some of our closest allies and partners.”

Reports of spy balloons have, uh, ballooned since then. This after years of the public being untroubled by anything out of the ordinary in the heavens. Last week, the Japanese government announced that an object that flew over territorial waters near Kyushu in January last year was almost certainly a Chinese spy balloon. In the UK, prime minister Rishi Sunak warned that the RAF are standing by to shoot down any Chinese spy balloon that enters British airspace. Concern is mounting. Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writes in The Times:

“This is the grey zone between war and peace, a space aggressively and expertly inhabited by China. The same thing — with ‘balloons’ — could happen here in the UK. But it is already happening in other ways. The flying objects have simply made tangible a range of nefarious terrestrial activities, and that makes them a wake-up moment for policymakers and the public alike. When the UK next detects malign Chinese activity, we need to call it out and may have to shoot something down. But most of all, we should communicate now, clearly, that we’ll do so.”

Balloons were first used for espionage purposes in 1794 by Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Fleurus. He used another observation balloon at the Siege of Mainz the following year. Over time aerial surveillance grew more sophisticated, what with modern high-altitude aircraft snooping about undetected by radar. It seems weird, then, that we should now have come full circle back to balloons.

It is however the more “traditional” forms of spying, those “nefarious terrestrial activities”, that the Chinese have mastered. This is the close-up stuff.

The day after Sunak told the nation that Biggin Hill is on full alert, the UK government’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, Fraser Sampson, warned that the police are leaving themselves open to spying by Beijing because of their reliance on Chinese-made cameras. “There are major security concerns with a lot of these cameras, both in terms of the technology they contain and what happens to the data that comes from them,” Sampson was quoted as saying. “If you buy a system like this, you have to be able to trust the company you are buying from.”

Of perhaps greater concern are the “secret police stations” that Beijing has reportedly set up in countries around the world, including South Africa, to “monitor, harass and in some cases repatriate Chinese citizens living in exile”. According to Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based human rights body, Beijing has made use of bilateral security arrangements struck with European and African countries to increase the international presence of its police forces.

In their report Patrol and Persuade, released in November last year, the organisation identified 110 such “police stations” in at least 53 countries administered by four different jurisdictions of China’s Ministry of Public Security. In August 2018, one such clandestine “station” was set up in Johannesburg by the Wenzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau. 

In May 2022, the Chinese language African Times reported that the “Johannesburg Service Station of Fuzhou Police and Overseas Chinese Affairs – established within the South African Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre — was officially launched”. A similar “aid centre” is operational in Cape Town.

The Patrol and Persuade report quotes from a People’s Republic of China official website to define the functions of these aid centres: 

“In South Africa, Chinese police liaison officers [official Embassy personnel, ndr.] have united with major local overseas Chinese associations to establish a Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Center. When Chinese and overseas Chinese encounter problems, they can report to the Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Center, and then the center will communicate and coordinate with the local police to solve the problem. At present, nine Police Cooperation Centers have been established in South Africa and extended to Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania and other countries.” 

The UK has not taken too kindly to claims that secret Chinese police stations are operating in London and Glasgow. In his reaction to the Safeguard Defenders report, security minister Tom Tugendhat told the House of Commons that the government would be stepping up its work to prevent “transnational repression”. Police would investigate these “undeclared” stations, and the alleged harassment of political dissidents would be stopped. 

According to a Politico report, Chinese officials have not denied the existence of such “facilities”. But they claim they exist purely to provide bureaucratic services to Chinese citizens and do not involve police operations. One of the two alleged stations in London operates from premises registered as an estate agent. The one in Glasgow is said to be a Chinese restaurant.

The more “official” Chinese establishments are also troubling. In December, Beijing recalled six officials from Britain, including one of its most senior UK diplomats, two months after an incident outside its Manchester consulate. Bob Chan, a pro-democracy protester from Hong Kong, had been dragged onto the consulate grounds and severely beaten. The UK requested that consulate officials waive their right to diplomatic immunity to allow detectives to question them about the incident. However, having done a bunk, none of the six will now face justice.

Meanwhile, the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) wonder if the Mbombela “massage parlour” regularly frequented in 2015 by then state security minister David Mahlobo may have in fact been a front for a Chinese spy operation. Mahlobo was apparently quite friendly with one Wei Chelsea. Who knows what state secrets were handed over to the Chinese as this “employee” probed the minister’s grey zones and prodded him for sensitive information? 

It is true that Chelsea’s “handler”, Guang Jiang Guang, told Al Jazeera that he was a rhino horn smuggler. But what better cover for a spy than a self-confessed criminal? Members of the Jacob Zuma administration actively sought out such people as professional companions and business partners.