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 [US-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] program ... by tracking radio signals" from the cosmos, says Mr Zhao.
The academy has drawn up its own SETI plan and is awaiting 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 that "Chinese people are becoming better educated and have more leisure time to explore their own interests, and science is increasingly popularized in the press."
"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 US 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 US space shuttle and help colonize the moon," says a Chinese space researcher who asked not to be identified.
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.
Mr. 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 3000 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," says Sun.
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.
Sun says membership in his UFO group has skyrocketed to 40,000 Chinese in the last five years, and adds the organization includes professors, students, engineers, and 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 explains.
"The universe contains so many stars that it's hard to believe life arose only in the solar system," says Zhao. But 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."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society