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U.F.O. Boom Doesn't Worry Officials
Beijing Journal, Jan. 11, 2000

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 articles. "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" behavior. 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 scientific. 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.