- BEIJING -- The last few months
have been a boom time for U.F.O. enthusiasts in China.
- Just before the start of the year 2000, there were dozens
of sightings. Strange shining objects were observed scooting through the
sky by hundreds of people, from former airport workers to college deans.
- "Warning Wuhan! Warning Dalian! Warning Xian! Jiangsu!
Beijing! Shanghai!" exulted the Jiangsu U.F.O. Research Society's
Web site. "Frequent U.F.O. visits have enveloped all of China."
- Buoyed in part by the sightings, the ranks of the research
societies in major Chinese cities devoted to unidentified flying objects
have grown to more than 40,000 members.
- More important still, the normally conservative official
news media have been lavishing attention on U.F.O. news, with documentaries
on the main government television station, CCTV-1, and credulous newspaper
- "The level of interest and acceptance is definitely
rising," said Sun Shili, a retired Foreign Ministry official who is
president of the Beijing U.F.O. Research Society. "Because of the
frequent sightings recently in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities that
have had many witnesses, even the media -- which are very serious and careful
-- have been paying attention."
- Of course, in many ways it would seem a most awkward
time for fleets of extraterrestrials to be buzzing China, what with the
government jailing leaders of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and a few
other groups, also associated with the traditional Chinese practice of
qigong exercises, for "superstitious" and "anti-scientific"
- But so far, at least, the government has decided to tolerate
the U.F.O. craze even if it does not financially support it. Wildly popular
and politically unthreatening, U.F.O. research is the kind of unorthodox
pursuit that is allowed in China today. Anyway, government officials and
citizens alike tend to view U.F.O. research as science or at least possibly
- And officials of U.F.O. societies are determined to keep
it that way.
- "The study of U.F.O.'s is fundamentally different
from other things like Falun Gong and qigong, which have come under criticism
lately," said Jin Fan, an engineer who heads the Dalian U.F.O. Research
Society in northeast China. "This is a purely scientific field, whereas
Falun Gong deals with cults and superstition."
- Indeed, a large portion of China's U.F.O. enthusiasts
are scientists and engineers, not the sci-fi buffs or apocalyptic stargazers
who are the stereotype in the United States. Many of China's U.F.O. research
societies require a college degree and published research for membership.
The Chinese Air Force attends important U.F.O. meetings.
- "If our conditions for membership weren't so strict,
we'd have millions of members by now," said Mr. Sun, a cheerful intellectual
in a gray sweater and striped tie, who seems to embody the movement --
a bit offbeat, yes, but also scholarly, serious and strictly establishment.
- In his cluttered Beijing study, he proudly displays old
photographs of himself interpreting for Chairman Mao and a more recent
vintage Alien Collection set containing models of a Nordic alien and of
those reportedly found in Roswell, N.M., for example.
- Applauding the Chinese government's "enlightened
and practical attitude," Mr. Sun said: "In the U.S., scholars
investigating this are under pressure and have been derided. But in China
the academic discussion is quite free, so in this area American academics
are quite jealous of us."
- The cluster of dozens of sightings in the last four months
has given China's enthusiasts new grist for discussions. Most episodes
involved glowing orange-yellow objects that were reported to have lingered
in the late-afternoon or night sky for more than 15 minutes before disappearing
in an instant.
- In a country where camcorders and cameras are now common
household equipment, many were captured on film, and the images found their
way into newspapers and onto television.
- Mr. Jin videotaped some suspected U.F.O's over Dalian
on Dec. 25. "I believe what I saw was a U.F.O., based on its pattern
of movement, its glow, its shape and its appearance," he said. "It
had substance and dimensionality -- it was clearly an object."
- Mr. Jin, an engineer, said the turns and dips made by
the objects, as well as their rapid acceleration, could not have been the
maneuvers of man-made planes or rockets. He added that he had been researching
the subject long enough to distinguish a true U.F.O. from an "atmospheric
- Experts have various theories about the recent rash of
U.F.O. sightings. A recent article in the Journal of U.F.O. Research, published
by the Gansu Science and Technology Press, notes that sightings in China
peak each year around Oct. 1, China's National Day.
- "If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense
that visitors from an extraterrestrial civilization would come now,"
Mr. Jin said. "We're entering a new millennium, so any extraterrestrial
civilization that's been observing us would want to document the state
of our civilization at this particular moment, as sort of a historical
- He attributed the high frequency of sightings in China
to its population density. And club officials say more than half of Chinese
are interested in U.F.O.'s and believe that they might exist.
- The Beijing U.F.O. Research Society has 280 members,
and 30 percent are managers or Communist Party workers. The yearly research
meetings of the national U.F.O. society are covered by reporters from the
major news organizations.
- This is an extraordinary reversal in a country where
25 years ago life was so focused on Communist politics that most people
could not imagine anything so ethereal as an unidentified flying object,
and expressing belief in them might have been a ticket to jail.
- Indeed, Mr. Sun said he did not appreciate his one and
only U.F.O. sighting -- a "bright object in the sky" -- in 1971,
when he was sent to the countryside as a young Communist Party worker during
the Cultural Revolution. "I assumed it must be some sort of monitoring
device, since relations between China and the Soviet Union were very tense
at the time," he said, laughing. "It was only years later, when
I got more access to foreign materials, that I realized what I'd experienced."
- He and others credit China's two decades of liberalization
and market reforms for allowing U.F.O. fever to flourish. "As China
has opened to the outside world in the last 20 years, people's thinking
has also opened," he said.
- Some of the current U.F.O. research in China centers
on investigating sightings, but much of it involves trying to create new
forms of propulsion to try to explain how U.F.O.'s might work.
- Mr. Sun describes with great excitement a small balloonlike
device invented by one of his members that moves faster than other man-made
devices. Although it exists now only as a small model, the society is planning
to test it, first on water and then on land and in space.
- The research societies also share information and reports
on the quirkier aspect of U.F.O.'s, like alien abductions. They are looking
into the case of a Beijing worker who said that in December he was held
for two hours on an alien spacecraft, where he was studied as part of a
- But Chinese U.F.O. society officials say they prefer
to maintain a sober exterior, often playing down controversial topics,
which they prefer to discuss in private.
- And so the most recent issue of the Journal of U.F.O.
Research, published in November, scoffed at the notions of a millennial
apocalypse -- even as it carried articles on "interstellar migration"
and the notion that the Egyptian pyramids were instruments for communication
- And U.F.O. enthusiasts say they will avoid the troubles
that have befallen qigong.
- "We're very careful and cautious to present things
scientifically and to filter out things that head in a superstitious direction,"
Mr. Sun said, "since there's a great deal of fakery in the U.F.O.
field as well as real occurrence."