(Bloomberg) -- China’s internet was silent for much of Friday, when the US’s spy balloon claims started consuming global social media. But the criticism suddenly began to flow after Beijing weighed in. 

China has largely allowed comments faulting the US’s approach to the balloon to circulate freely on the country’s heavily censored internet, with the latest Foreign Ministry statement getting 68 million reads in the first two hours Monday. Internet users echoed official statements protesting President Joe Biden’s decision to shoot down what Beijing said was a “civilian airship” and threatening retaliation. 

“If something flies over Taiwan again, we will show you what diplomatic reciprocity is!” Retail Investor Da Bai Yi, a user of the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform said. “Next time an American military plane or ship dares to cross China’s borders, don’t blame us for not downing them,” another user named Welcome to Luling wrote. 

The decision to let outrage over the balloon dispute proliferate showed the challenge in any efforts by Biden or Chinese President Xi Jinping to get back to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to Beijing planned for Sunday — the first such visit in more than four years — after the administration revealed the balloon was hovering near sensitive US military sites.

Chinese state media piled into the debate, dismissing Blinken’s rationale for calling off the visit. “The fact the US’s decision is based on some media outlets’ hyping up of the issue makes one doubt its sincerity in putting bilateral relations back on a healthy track,” the English-language China Daily newspaper said in an editorial. 

Sentiment on China’s social media tracked with the official government statements, which shifted from contrite late Friday confrontational by early Sunday. Chinese social media users at first accused the US of hyping the incident and then demanded a strong response to the administration’s use of force. 

That was a change from the hours after the Biden administration’s first announcements on the balloon, when discussion about the dust-up appeared suppressed. “Looks like discussions related to the balloon are not allowed,” defense blogger Onion Military News wrote Friday afternoon, saying its posts on the balloon were taken down. 

After the Foreign Ministry first confirmed Friday night that the balloon belonged to China, online debate picked up. Chinese internet users accused the of reacting unnecessarily to the “wandering balloon” — a reference to the nationalistic Wandering Earth movie franchise. 

“The ‘wandering balloon’ incident is an accident,” Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote on Weibo on Sunday afternoon. “The US is hyping it up with much malice, and clearly overreacting to it.” 

Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying said on Twitter that politicians in the US “are treating the accident in the most dramatic way possible.”

“They seek to make a mountain out of a molehill, and depict the balloon as proof of the ‘China Threat,’ she wrote. “This shows that contrary to what it claims, the US lacks sincerity in managing China-US relations.”

Others users said the US’s decision to destroy the balloon gives China the right to react in the same way when a foreign object is spotted in its airspace, with frequent comparisons to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. While Pelosi is no longer in that post, her Republican successor, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has pledged to make his own trip to Taipei. 

“If our airships get shot down when they go to the US, in other words, we will have to shoot it down if America’s Pelosi comes,” said one post from user The Stool Amid Historical Transformation. 

--With assistance from Phila Siu.

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