Summary: At the beginning of the new millennium, China is astir with sightings of otherworldly visitors. Such sightings are treated with unexpected seriousness in this country usually straightjacketed by its communist rulers.
PUSALU VILLAGE, China, Jan. 2 - Poor farmers in Beijing's barren hills saw it: an object swathed in colored light arcing heavenward that some say must have been a UFO.
They're not alone. People in 12 other Chinese cities reported possible UFO sightings last month. UFO researchers, meanwhile, were busy looking into claims of an alien abduction in Beijing.
At the beginning of the new millennium, China is astir with sightings of otherworldly visitors. Such sightings are treated with unexpected seriousness in this country usually straightjacketed by its communist rulers.
China has a bimonthly magazine - circulation 400,000 - devoted to UFO research. The conservative state-run media report UFO sightings. UFO buffs claim support from eminent scientists and liaisons with the secretive military, giving their work a scientific sheen of respectability.
''Some of these sightings are real, some are fake and with others its unclear,'' said Shen Shituan, a real rocket scientist, president of Beijing Aerospace University and honorary director of the China UFO Research Association. ''All these phenomena are worth researching.''
Research into UFOs will help spur new forms of high-speed travel, unlimited sources of energy and faster-growing crops, claims Sun Shili, president of the government-approved UFO Research Association (membership 50,000).
A foreign trade expert and a Spanish translator for Mao Tse-tung, Sun saw a UFO nearly 30 years ago while at a labor camp for ideologically suspect officials.
''It was extremely bright and not very big,'' said Sun. ''At that time, I had no knowledge of UFOs. I thought it was a probe sent by the Soviet revisionists.''
For thousands of years, Chinese have looked to the skies for portents of change on Earth. While China is passing through its first millennium using the West's Gregorian calendar, the traditional lunar calendar is ushering in the Year of the Dragon, regarded as time of tumultuous change.
''All of that sort of millennial fear and trepidation fits in so nicely with Chinese cosmology - and also the Hollywood propaganda that everybody's been lapping up,'' said Geremie Barme, a Chinese culture watcher at Australia National University.
In Pusalu, a patch of struggling corn and bean farms 30 miles from Beijing, villagers believe cosmic forces were at play on Dec. 11. As they tell it, an object the size of a person shimmering with golden light moved slowly up into the sky from the surrounding arid mountains.
''It was so beautiful, sort of yellow,'' villager Wang Cunqiao said. ''It was like someone flying up to heaven.''
What ''it'' was remains a topic of debate. Many villagers are fervent Buddhists. But local leaders want to play down any religious overtones, fearing that government censure may spoil plans to attract tourism to Pusalu.
''Some say it was caused by an earthquake. Some say it was a UFO. Some say it was a ray of Buddha. I'm telling everyone to call it an auspicious sign,'' said Chen Jianwen, village secretary for the officially atheistic Communist Party.
State media ignored religious interpretations and labeled the celestial events in Pusalu, Beijing, Shanghai and 10 other Chinese cities in December as possible UFOs. But UFO researchers have largely dismissed the sightings as airplane trails catching the low sun.
''If the military didn't chase it, it's because they knew it wasn't a UFO. They were probably testing a new aircraft,'' said Chen Yanchun, a shipping company executive who helps manage the China UFO Research Resource Center.
Operating from a dingy three-room flat in a Beijing apartment block, the Resource Center keeps a version of China's X-Files: 140 dictionary-sized boxes of fading newspaper clippings and eyewitness accounts of sightings. The collection has, among others items, accounts that the military scrambled planes in 1998 in an unsuccessful pursuit of a UFO.
Chen said the center has had 500 reported UFO sightings in 1999, but after investigation confirmed cases will likely number 200 or so. He's currently checking on a worker's claims that aliens entered his Beijing home in early December and, with his wife and child present, spirited him 165 miles east and back in a few hours.
''The increase in flying saucer incidents is natural,'' said Chen, a former Aerospace Ministry researcher with a Ph.D. in aerodynamics. He cited more manmade aerospace activity and radio signals from Earth penetrating farther into space.
Sun has another theory: He believes aliens may find China attractive for the same reason foreign investors and tourists do.
''It's very possible that relatively rapid development attracts investigations by flying saucers, and here in China we're becoming more developed,'' he said. ''Generally, well-developed areas like the United States have reported more sightings.''