Sailors recover a Chinese high-altitude balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina after it was shot down by US forces on February 5, 2023.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Washington believes the balloon shot down over the Atlantic on Saturday is part of an extensive Chinese surveillance program – but that Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, may not have been aware of the mission.

The assessment was communicated to American lawmakers in briefings Thursday, according to CNN reporting – and if true, could point to what analysts say would be a significant lack of coordination within the Chinese system at a fraught period of China-US relations.

The alternative in this scenario – that Xi was aware that a balloon was being dispatched over the United States ahead of a visit from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing – would raise a separate set of concerns about China’s decision-making in relation to the US.

It could mean that Xi and his top advisers underestimated the potential gravity of the fallout of the mission and the possibility it could imperil Blinken’s visit, which would have been the first from the most senior US diplomat since 2018 and had been welcomed by Beijing as a path to easing strained ties.

So far, China has offered slim information to fill out its own version of events – maintaining the balloon was a Chinese civilian research airship blown off course and flatly denying a broader surveillance program.

Beijing, in a statement last weekend, appeared to link the device to “companies,” rather than the government or military – though in China the prominence of state-owned enterprises and a robust military-industrial complex blurs the line between the two. 

However, a senior State Department official said the US believes the balloon was part of a “PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations” and that these activities are “often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).” The official added that China has “overflown these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents” – without providing more detail.

Whether the balloon was civilian or military, its location over the US raises the question of just how closely Xi is aware of potentially sensitive missions being undertaken under his watch within the sprawling, but top-down Chinese system.

If the balloon that traveled over the US is part of what Washington describes as a coordinated and military-affiliated surveillance program, one possibility, according to analysts, is that Xi may have been aware of the program, but not its day-to-day operations.

Such a situation, according to Singapore-based analyst Drew Thompson, could have been exacerbated by the level of control wielded by Xi – who cemented his grip on power last fall as he entered a precedent-breaking third term atop the Communist Party.

“The problem with the centralization of power under Xi Jinping is the lack of delegation of authority to lower levels,” said Thompson, who is a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

That means that lower-level officials who may have the capacity to more closely monitor such missions may not be empowered to do so, or not be equipped to make political judgments about their impact, he said. Power struggles between lower and higher ranking officials could also complicate communication, he said.

“There is a tension throughout the Chinese system – it’s a feature of Chinese governance, where lower levels fight for their own autonomy, and upper levels fight for greater control,” he said.

Past crises in China have pointed to these tensions, including the outbreaks of both SARS in 2002-2003 and more recently Covid-19, where reporting delays were widely seen as having slowed the response and compounded the problem. Some blamed local officials who feared repercussions, or were accustomed to a system where information flows from the top down, not the bottom up.

Balloon launches could also fall into a gap in which operations were not managed or overseen in the same way as space or other aircraft missions, according to Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

In this case, entities launching balloons may have received “little or no push back from other countries, including the United States” and “increasingly seen such launches as routine based on weather conditions and at modest costs,” Yang said.

“As a result, while the leaders of these programs have also become emboldened over time to test new routes, it was likely that they didn’t get top priority attention from the perspective of political risk,” he said.

Biden officials expressed the belief that both the senior leadership of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party, including Xi, were also unaware of the balloon mission over the US, and that China is still trying to figure out how this happened, a source familiar with the Thursday briefing to Congress told CNN.

China’s Foreign Ministry appeared caught off-guard by the situation as it publicly unfolded over the past week – releasing its first explanation of the incident more than 12 hours after the Pentagon announced it was tracking a suspected surveillance balloon.

But some observers of elite Chinese politics remain skeptical that Xi would have been unaware of a balloon dispatched to US airspace or that lower-level officials would conduct such a mission that could impact US-China relations without his knowledge.

“Because of his personality, he wants 100% (control),” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor, also at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “I don’t think Xi Jinping allows for that kind of autonomy.”

Instead, Xi may have been comfortable with an incident that diverted the attention of a public frustrated amid a faltering economy after years under the recently dismantled zero-Covid policy – but underestimated the US domestic response that resulted in the postponed talks, Wu said.

Beijing, for its part, has accused the US of “overreacting” in its decision to shoot down the balloon on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Washington may be offering its message that Xi wasn’t aware of the situation as it seeks to “continue the dialogue” started during a meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Bali, according to Wu.

“They may want to offer (China) some face,” he said.

CNN’s Nectar Gan, Jeremy Herb, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Manu Raju and Haley Britzky contributed reporting.