- BEIJING - Long isolated by
great walls of xenophobia, China is curiously entering the new century
by trying to build bridges of communication with extraterrestrials.
- Amid a wave of UFO sightings and the rise of a generation
bred on Star Wars and The X-Files, Chinese space scientists are mapping
out plans to find and explore life beyond Earth.
- "China is planning to build a gigantic radio telescope
that will search for signs of and signals from extraterrestrial intelligence,
says Zhao Fuyuan, an astronomer at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"The telescope will work like the SETI program by tracking radio
signals from the cosmos, Zhao says.
- The academy has drawn up its own SETI plan and awaits
funding to begin construction at a time when citizens of other planets
seem to have launched an invasion of the Middle Kingdom: Chinese newspapers
and broadcasters, even the normally staid, state-run Chinese Central TV,
are stepping up reports of close encounters here with aliens.
- "As they become more market-oriented, Chinese editors,
like their American counterparts, are finding that aliens and UFO sightings
sell newspapers, says a Beijing-based diplomat who tracks the local press.
- Astronomer Zhao says, "Chinese people are becoming
better educated and have more leisure time to explore their own interests,
and science is increasingly popularized in the press.
- Facts and Fantasy
- "These two trends, he adds, "are both boosting
coverage of phenomena on the fringes of science like UFOs. Zhao says the
Academy of Sciences recently issued a circular authorizing all its members
for the first time to talk to the press about UFOs.
- "The academy hopes that more media reports about
and growing interest in extraterrestrial life will convince the government
to invest more money in the overall space program, he says.
- China,s creation of a SETI operation is only one step
in an ambitious 21st-century plan to explore the universe. "China,s
recent success in launching its first unmanned space capsule is catapulting
the country toward recognition as a major space power, says a Western official.
"The Chinese think they can one day catch up to the U.S. as one of
the world,s top space powers, he adds.
- "Within the next two decades, China wants to build
a reusable launcher like the U.S. space shuttle and help colonize the moon,
says a Chinese space researcher who asked not to be identified.
- Feidie in the Sky
- Back on Earth, more and more urban Chinese are reporting
sighting feidie, or flying dishes. The first videotape of a purported UFO
in Chinese airspace was recently aired on a news program in southwest China.
- If anyone here is uniquely situated to handle China,s
first communication with an alien race, it is probably Sun Shili.
- Sun, who was once an official translator for Chairman
Mao Zedong and is now the head of the Chinese UFO Research Organization,
says there were more than 3,000 sightings of unidentified flying objects
across China in 1999.
- Sun says he had his first brush with an alien back in
1969, when Mao sent him to work in the barren fields of impoverished Jiangxi
Province "to learn from the peasants.
- "While planting rice, I saw a glowing sphere flying
oval-shaped orbits between the ground and the sky, but at first I thought
it must have been a Soviet spy ship, Sun says.
- It was only after Mao,s death in 1976 ended China,s isolation
that Sun began reading Western books on UFOs and realized he might have
witnessed a craft from farther away than Moscow or even Mars, he says.
- UFOs for Everyone
- Sun says membership in his UFO group has skyrocketed
to 40,000 Chinese in the past five years and adds the organization includes
professors, students, engineers, even Communist Party officials.
- While he concedes his UFO group still has no solid evidence
of a single contact with extraterrestrial life, Sun says he has a gut feeling
that "aliens are living among us disguised as humans.
- Astronomer Zhao says he is much more skeptical about
the recent rash of UFO sightings. "Most of the people who thought
they witnessed a UFO probably saw the reflection of airplane fuel traces
reflected in the sunlight or an atmospheric mirage, Zhao says.
- "The universe contains so many stars that it,s hard
to believe life arose only in the solar system, Zhao says. But he adds
the immense size of the cosmos also makes the possibility remote that aliens
have ever touched down in China.
- Yet he adds that "Chinese history dating back to
the Shang Dynasty [in 2000 BC], when records were carved onto tortoise
shells [includes] accounts of what could be UFO sightings.
- Copyright 2000 The Christian Science Monitor.