Summary: 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. 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.
Recent months have been a boom time for UFO 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 UFO Research Society web site. "Frequent UFO visits have enveloped all of China."
Buoyed 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 UFO news, with documentaries on the main government television station, CCTV-1, and credulous newspaper articles.
"The level of interest and acceptance is rising rapidly," said Sun Shili, a retired Foreign Ministry official who is chairman of the Beijing UFO 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 - has 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 that favor traditional Qigong exercises as a health measure - for "superstitious" and "anti-scientific" behavior.
But so far, at least, the government has placed UFO research in the realm of science. Officials of UFO societies are determined to keep it that way, warning members to stay away from qigong.
"The study of UFOs 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 UFO Research Society in Northeast China. "This is a purely scientific field, whereas Falun Gong deals with cults and superstition."
Indeed, most of China's UFO 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 UFO research societies require a college degree and published research for membership. The Chinese Air Force attends important UFO meetings.
"If our conditions for membership weren't so strict, we'd have millions of members by now," said 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 both photographs of himself interpreting for Chairman Mao - and a more recent vintage alien collection set, containing models of the Nordic Alien and the Roswell alien, for example.
Applauding the Chinese government's "enlightened and practical attitude," Sun said: "In the US 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 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, which found its way into newspapers and onto television.
Jin videotaped some suspected UFOs over Dalian on December 25. "I believe what I saw was a UFO 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."
Jin, an engineer, said that the turns and dips made by the objects - as well as their rapid acceleration - could not have been made by man-made planes or rockets and the sighting was on a clear day. Anyway, he added, he has been researching the subject long enough to distinguish UFOs from "atmospheric phenomenon."
Experts have various theories about the rash of UFO sightings. A recent article in the Journal of UFO Research, published by the Gansu Science and Technology Press, notes that sightings in China peak each year around October 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," said Jin. "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 an historical snapshot."
He attributed the high frequency of sightings in China to its population density.
In the United States, flying saucers are mostly consigned to the lunatic fringe. But more than half of Chinese are interested in UFOs and believe they might exist, club officials said.
The Beijing UFO Research Society has 280 members, and 30 percent are Communist Party cadres or managers. The yearly research meetings of the national UFO society is covered by reporters from all major news media.
But 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, Sun said, he did not appreciate his one and only UFO sighting - a "bright object in the sky" - in 1971, when he was sent to the countryside as a young Communist Party cadre during Mao's 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 UFO fever to flourish. "As China has opened to the outside world in the last 20 years, people's thinking has also opened," said Jin.
Some of the current UFO research in China centers on investigating sightings, but much of it involves trying to create new forms of propulsion that might explain how UFOs might work.
Sun describes with great excitement a small balloon-like device invented by one of his members that moves faster than other objects. Although it only exists now as a small model, the society is planning to test it first on water and then on land and in space. "We are hoping it could be a tourist attraction and use the concept to make a toy - but we haven't produced one as yet because we're worried it would be easily pirated," he said.
The Research Societies also share information and reports on the quirkier aspect of UFOs, like alien abductions. They are currently looking into the case of a Beijing worker who said that in December he was held on an alien spacecraft for two hours, where he was studied as part of a medical experiment.
But Chinese UFO societies prefer to maintain a sober exterior, often downplaying controversial and preferring to discuss far out theories in private.
And so, the most recent issue of the Journal of UFO Research, published last 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 with extra-terrestrials.
And UFO enthusiasts say that 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," said Sun. "Since there's a great deal of fakery in the UFO field, as well as real occurrence."