China replaced its national weather chief just after the US revealed the balloon was flying over its territory, fueling speculation that the move was connected to Beijing's claim it was a climate research vehicle.
The State Council, the Chinese government's cabinet, made the announcement involving Zhuang Guotai on Friday, though the statement didn't give a reason for his dismissal.
China said hours after announcing Zhuang's removal that balloon traveled into US territory by accident. The China Meteorological Administration didn't name a replacement for him.
It's unclear whether the decision was linked to the balloon, which China said was gathering climate data and the US later shot down. The Chinese government is reshuffling key personnel in departments across its vast bureaucracy before a meeting of the National People's Congress in March, when the process should be completed.
Zhuang is 60 years old, typically the age when Chinese officials move into roles in the legislature or political advisory bodies before retiring at 65. Zhuang was named to an advisory position in the northwestern province of Gansu in January.
Still the timing of the dismissal is curious. It came just after the US Defense Department said it was monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over sensitive nuclear missile sites in Montana.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday. Calls to the nation's meteorological administration were unanswered.
The uproar over the balloon flying across the US prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a trip to Beijing, one that 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 Group of 20 summit in Bali in November led to an easing of tensions.
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