The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before they floated abroad, China’s spy balloons were already used at home

A suspected Chinese spy balloon is downed off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 after it had passed over a large section of the continental United States. (Randall Hill/Reuters)
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In the summer of 2017, a group of more than 30 police officers from Beijing’s Public Security Bureau visited a government-backed balloon research center. They viewed the balloons stored in its warehouse, looked at ground equipment for larger aircraft and discussed how these airborne devices could help security forces at the “battlefront.”

Posing for a photo in front of a tethered balloon in a hangar, the group displayed a Chinese Communist Party flag and a banner that exhorted: “Learn the essence of flight, build a loyal police spirit.”

The saga of the suspected Chinese spy balloon drifting from Alaska to the Carolinas before it was shot down has raised questions about China’s intentions and capabilities in the field of high-altitude balloons — an age-old and, until recently, little-noticed tool for gathering intelligence.

Chinese balloon part of vast aerial surveillance program, U.S. says

China’s use of aerostats — which include free-floating balloons like the one found hovering over the United States, steerable balloons or airships, and tethered balloons — to observe its own people offers clues to the scope and ambition of a program shrouded in secrecy.

The devices have been deployed to monitor residents in the western region of Xinjiang, support security for the Shanghai Expo and patrol for terrorist activity in remote mountainous regions of the country. The use of balloons for “social stability maintenance,” or preventing dissent, demonstrates how Chinese firms and research institutions are honing these monitoring tools at home for potential use abroad and in the case of war.

From blocking bombs to capturing data digitally, here’s how the use of surveillance balloons has evolved in the field of espionage. (Video: Hadley Green, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Beijing claims the balloon that was shot down was being used strictly for scientific research, denying American accusations that it was sent aloft to conduct surveillance of U.S. military sites.

“China-U.S. ties started with a ping-pong ball in 1971,” said Su Tzu-yun, a military analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, referring to the sports diplomacy under President Richard M. Nixon that paved the way for official relations. “ ... And now another much larger ball is shaking the relationship.”

After the balloon, China works on fixing U.S. ties while still looking tough

Over the past four decades, China has made itself a world leader in high-altitude balloons for purposes including collecting weather data and launching rockets. A network of private and state-run companies and research institutes is investing in the technology that falls under the country’s broader near-space ambitions.

At the heart of these efforts is the Lighter-Than-Air Vehicle Center of the Academy of Opto-Electronics, a balloon research center based in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which falls under China’s State Council. It is led by a physicist and balloon enthusiast, Jiang Luhua, who in 2008 was among experts calling on the government to fill the “vacuum” that is the vast space of the stratosphere.

“The international competition for the stratosphere is still relatively open,” Jiang said in an interview that year, describing airships as the “secret weapon that countries around the world are vying to develop.”

Jiang and the Aerospace Information Research Institute, which oversees the Academy of Opto-Electronics, did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the research center that Jiang leads was launched in 2005, more than 200 balloon experiments have been carried out, according to the center’s website. Its ambitions include setting up a high-altitude balloon base in the South Pole. Jiang has previously said he wants to build balloons that can carry up to 2.5 tons.

According to a 2018 job ad, balloon experiments have been conducted in Beijing and the nearby province of Shandong, across the desert regions of Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Qinghai, and on the southern island of Hainan, where U.S. officials say the Chinese surveillance device was launched before it may have been blown off course.

China has excelled in making sturdier balloons, micro-radar and other communications systems, as well as remote sensing and control — helped by its more than 500 satellites around Earth.

“Even though they started late, in the 21st century, as of around 2015, [China] has surpassed France and Japan in overall scale,” said Kuo Yu-jen, a professor at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.

Jiang and his team have for years stressed that balloons offer cheap surveillance platforms able to follow motor vehicles and people, similar to the U.S. use of aerostats in Afghanistan during the war there.

U.S. tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path

A chief difference in their use is that in China, balloons also are used to monitor the Chinese people. In 2010, the Academy of Opto-Electronics worked with China Electronics Technology Group Corp., which has been targeted by U.S. sanctions for being a supplier to the Chinese military, to pilot a 57,000-cubic-foot “balloon security guard” above the Shanghai Expo. The tethered balloon, equipped with high-definition, infrared and hyperspectral cameras, was kept in position for seven days.

In 2014, a balloon equipped with high-definition and infrared cameras, developed by that same state-owned company, was sent up during a tulip festival in northern Xinjiang.

“For 24 hours a day, with a 360 degree view it can monitor the tourists on the ground, the cars, the buildings. … Even an object the size of a book will be seen by the ‘eye in the sky,’” read a summary of the event on the website of the government’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. “As soon as an abnormality is detected, feedback will be sent to ground control.”

In 2017, a 72-foot balloon developed by the state-owned aerospace company AVIC was launched in Hubei province for conducting anti-terrorism patrols elsewhere. The balloon, which could be launched from an altitude of almost 10,000 feet and cruise over remote mountainous regions such as Tibet, was made in just three months, using imported materials.

Jiang’s balloon research center also illustrates the frequently blurred line between military and civilian work in China. Such programs are often initiated by the government, according to Su of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

“These balloons have a dual, military-civilian use. So, underneath, it could be from a science research organ or a private civilian business, but after development it’s given to the PLA,” Su said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. He added that surveillance-balloon operations were likely to be run by the relatively new Strategic Support Force, which is charged with space and cyberwarfare.

A 2012 news release from the academy noted the “significant work” done by the balloon research center for the military, and a 2014 paper on hybrid airships co-written by Jiang hailed the “broad applications in both military and civilian fields” of hybrid airship systems.

In 2018, the Academy of Opto-Electronics organized the China Aerostat Conference in Beijing with the theme of “military-civilian integration”; in 2017, the academy attended a near space summit aimed at fusing military and civilian technologies, according a summary in state media.

Those links underline why so few Western officials believe Beijing’s claims that Chinese balloons detected abroad are not intended for spying.

“Even if meteorological data was part of the types of information it would be gathering, I’m not sure we really believe that explanation, given the integration between civilian and military bureaucracies and agencies in China,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Pei-Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.