Peh Shing Huei The Straits Times
The truth, it seems, is not really out there. It is in China. Really.
For a few busy weeks recently, the country has been astir with sightings of the otherworldy, with numerous reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, spotted in several cities.
Such extra-terrestrial claims may be dismissed as loony in many places, but China takes them seriously and scientifically, holding back commercial flights and even shutting down airports.
Aliens and the supernatural are no laughing matter in China. Dozens of magazines study flying saucers, online chat groups by the thousands share sightings and almost every province has a UFO research centre.
Even the usually conservative state- run mass media has few reservations reporting on celestial events such as UFO sightings.
Take last Tuesday's brouhaha in Beijing, for example. Several flight delays at the capital's airport led to a stir online when passengers tweeted that it was because of a strange flying object.
The aviation authorities quickly issued a statement refuting the rumours, clarifying that the delays were caused by bad weather.
That did not stop the mainstream media from reporting it thereafter, with some reports casting doubts on the airport's official version.
Similarly, when a giant ball of light estimated at about 90km wide was reported over both Beijing and Shanghai the same night on Aug 20, newspapers across the country gave it ample coverage, with several preferring the UFO explanation to the more prosaic reasoning that it was reflected light from an aircraft.
The authorities have closed airports because of UFO sightings. The latest shutdown lasted more than an hour in the south-western city of Chongqing last month.
Such closures occurred in Hangzhou and Hohhot last year too. Photos from Hangzhou showed a hovering object with a comet-like tail, bathed in golden light.
"I felt a beam of light over my head. Looking up, I saw a streak of bright, white light flying across the sky, so I picked up the camera and took the photo," resident Ma Shijun was quoted as saying by the state Xinhua news agency.
Across China, some 25 non-governmental UFO research institutes study the sightings seriously.
"We persist in rigorous scientific research, focusing on the investigation of various cases," said Mr Zhou Xiaoqiang, secretary of the Beijing UFO Research Association. "We do not rely on online chatter, and we have a higher credibility. We have also built a significant archive to compare data."
China's fascination with UFOs is not surprising. For thousands of years, the Chinese have looked to the skies for indications of changes on Earth.
And with the atheistic Communist Party in control since 1949, officials have found the quasi-scientific explanation of aliens and UFOs more convenient and in sync with its ruling philosophy than religious interpretations.
Of course, the country's vast and dark countryside offers better opportunities for frequent sightings than more urbanised countries, said veteran planetary astronomer Wang Sichao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Purple Mountain Observatory.
"Chinese astrology lovers have plenty of spaces in the countryside and suburbs to do their observations.
"These places are free of the visual pollution caused by the cities' bright lights, offering better quality photos and data," he said.
But the growing reports of sightings could also be put down to a population explosion in yet another galaxy - cyberspace.
The rising popularity of video-sharing sites and, in particular, microblogs, have allowed quick sharing of UFO sightings and photos.
It has its downside too, with fraudsters easily fabricating and uploading pictures online and causing false alarms.
As Mr Zhou said: "Most of the sightings are actually of kites, lanterns, insects and electrical devices.
"We are sure there is alien life form. We just have not found evidence of it on Earth."
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