Summary: In ever-changing China, which in places has rocketed from agrarian poverty to urban modernity in less than a decade, nothing seems impossible these days. Not even UFOs. That may explain why 60-year-old Sun Shili, professor of international trade at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics, is holding court at China's hallowed Academy of Science along with a South Korean delegation from something called the Embassy of Extraterrestrials.
By KATHY CHEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BEIJING -- In ever-changing China, which in places has rocketed from agrarian poverty to urban modernity in less than a decade, nothing seems impossible these days.
Not even UFOs.
That may explain why 60-year-old Sun Shili, professor of international trade at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics, is holding court at China's hallowed Academy of Science along with a South Korean delegation from something called the Embassy of Extraterrestrials.
Mr. Sun poses with a dress-up alien
In the West, unidentified flying objects and alien abductions are the stuff of Hollywood pulp and supermarket tabloids. But in China, UFOs are a matter of great national importance. Prof. Sun's group, the Chinese UFO Research Association, receives government grants, and its members include some of the nation's most respected scientists and academics -- even Communist Party officials.
These enthusiasts aren't merely trying to prove the existence of UFOs: They are attempting to figure out what makes them fly and then harness that power for everyday use in China.
"UFOs are faster than any airplane or car," Prof. Sun explains. "We hope to use the UFO phenomenon to resolve China's energy and efficiency problems." The professor, who once worked as a translator for Mao Tse-tung, adds that while "the focus of foreign UFO studies on sightings is a little passive," in China "we've always linked our research with science."
Of course, classifying the study of UFOs as "science" protects Prof. Sun and his group from Communist Party prohibitions against engaging in superstition. And China does have its official skeptics: Ji Fusheng, general director of the Department of Basic Research and High Technology of the China Association for Science and Technology, says "the study of UFOs does no harm, but I believe it won't have any concrete results."
A serious scholar with a dignified air, Prof. Sun experienced what he says was his first and only close encounter in 1969, when he spotted a bright orb bouncing like a yo-yo above the horizon during a Maoist learn-from-the-peasants campaign at a rural cooperative. Not having heard of flying saucers, "I thought it was a Soviet reconnaissance plane," he recounts. Mr. Sun only considered the other-worldly possibilities of his sighting after the author of a Spanish-language book on UFOs sent him a copy to translate. At the time, Mr. Sun was working for the government, even translating for Mao during meetings with Spanish-speaking dignitaries.
Before long, Mr. Sun had become the nation's leading UFO expert. He attended official conferences organized and funded by the government. A vice premier, Yao Yilin, wrote a commentary in 1980 urging the Chinese to respect his findings.
Sitting in his Beijing apartment in a study crammed with UFO books, Mr. Sun recounts how he helped transform the nation's UFO association from a science-fiction club, founded at Wuhan University in 1979, into a nationwide organization with 5,000 members.
One of his first moves after taking the helm in 1986 was to use his connections in government and academia to move the association's membership away from mostly students and laborers. He stepped up contact with the outside world, attending international conferences and posing for photos with dress-up aliens. Today, he brags, "80% of our members are college graduates or above."
Gao Ge is characteristic of the members Prof. Sun has been trying to recruit. The 52-year-old scientist at Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics holds three Chinese patents and one U.S. patent for aerospace-related advances, as well as China's National First-Class Invention prize for his research on improving the efficiency of jet engines. Ever since spotting what he says was an orange UFO in Miami, where he was a visiting professor at Florida Atlantic University in 1990, Mr. Gao has been trying to build his own. What he envisions is an ellipsoid with tiny wings that he says can take off vertically and move like an alien spaceship, albeit at subsonic speed.
Beds and Dragonfly Wings
Mr. Gao says he has test-flown a wooden prototype with the dimensions of a king-size bed. He is confident that, someday, with his craft's maneuverability and energy-saving "vortex generator" (a device that creates lift much like dragonfly wings) "you won't need airplanes anymore." He can't offer much more than a description, however: He says Beijing Institute has labeled his invention top secret and has banned him from showing even blueprints to outsiders.
Strolling by a lily pond at a senior citizens' recreation center in the southern city of Guiyang, another UFO buff and association member, Ma Ruian, 54, envisions a future filled with superfast submarines, floating cars and energy-saving ships shaped like flounders -- all gunned by his patented flying globe.
Mr. Ma conducts some of his experiments on this pond, using rudimentary models to test his theory. He believes that by redirecting air or water flow, his globe can decrease resistance, significantly speed up moving objects and save energy. To demonstrate, he releases a balloon fit with a special plug that controls the outrush of air. The balloon moves fast as it deflates, but Prof. Sun has his doubts about Mr. Ma's theory. "It could be a little exaggeration that the globe's speed could exceed that of a rocket," the professor says.
Fountain of Youth?
Perhaps the boldest dream belongs to Liu Zhongkai, 47, an official at the Beijing Meteorological Bureau with wild eyes and vertical hair. Patent authorities are weighing whether or not to register his invention, which he describes as a magnetic field that produces as much as a third more energy than it requires to run. Among other things, he claims, his magnetic field can alter time. "If you live to be 100 on Earth, in my UFO you will be able to live at least 100,000 years," he says.
Tinkering with his contraption -- two steel bars with coils of copper wire at each end -- Mr. Liu says his self-generating energy machine "is what UFOs must use to fly long distances because they can't use gas. It's a simple logic thing."
Which, of course, begs the question: How do these scientists know what makes a UFO run, since none claims to have ever been inside one?
"I've studied many photographs of UFOs," Mr. Ma says with a shrug. "In physics, you can work backward to figure out the theory."
That isn't to say the quest isn't tough. Says Mr. Sun: "Working with UFOs is more complicated than translating for Mao."