China Meteorological Bureau reshuffle draws attention after balloon fury

(Bloomberg) – China replaced its national meteorological chief just after the United States revealed the balloon was flying over its territory, fueling speculation that the move was linked to Beijing’s claim that it was a climate research vehicle.

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The State Council, the Chinese government’s cabinet, made the announcement regarding Zhuang Guotai on Friday, although the statement did not give a reason for his dismissal.

China said hours after announcing Zhuang’s withdrawal that the ball accidentally entered US territory. The China Meteorological Administration has not named a replacement for him.

It’s unclear whether the decision was related to the balloon, which China says was collecting climate data and later shot down by the United States. The Chinese government is reshuffling key personnel in departments across its vast bureaucracy ahead of a meeting of the National People’s Congress in March, when the process is expected to be completed.

See: China moves from contrition to confrontation over US ball

Zhuang is 60, usually the age at which Chinese officials rise to positions in the legislature or political advisory bodies before retiring at 65. Zhuang was appointed to an advisory post in the northwestern province of Gansu in January.

Still, the timing of the dismissal is curious. It came just after the US Department of Defense said it was monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over sensitive nuclear missile sites in Montana.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. Calls to the country’s meteorological administration went unanswered.

Read also: The United States tries to recover the Chinese ball while weighing the retaliation

The uproar over the balloon flying across the United States prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a trip to Beijing, which would have been the first such visit in more than four years.

Blinken’s trip could have included a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose talks with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali in November led to an easing of tensions.

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