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  Beijing Scene

Ten Commandments of News

A senior leader has accused the media of being over-zealous in exposing the dark side of society. Xu Guangchun, vice-director of the Communist Party's Propaganda Department, wrote an article in the Guangming Daily saying the central leadership supports the media's role as constructive watchdog. But he listed 10 'sins' of the media, saying reporters must correct these mistakes. He said some reports were not accurate or contained distorted facts. In some cases, reporters put words in the mouths of their interviewees, and misinterpreted government policies and laws.

Some reporters caused trouble by writing stories about cases under investigation by police and anti-graft officers before they were made public. Mr. Xu said some were 'simple-minded' and others prone to exaggeration.

Mr. Xu's article appeared to be a reaction to a spate of incidents in which reporters have been attacked or abused at work. Journalists have called on the authorities to step up protection. But Mr. Xu offered little consolation. He said it was not difficult to understand why the media was not welcomed. Journalists have lobbied for more than a decade for legislation to protect their rights and independence, but legislation has not yet been submitted to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for review.

Bureau Bans Opium

Popular French perfume Opium has been banned from mainland markets after consumers complained the name sent an improper message to young people, industry sources say.

The China agent for manufacturer Yves Saint Laurent confirmed reports that the State Commercial and Industrial Bureau had last month revoked the product's registration, effectively banning sales.

'It has already been removed from shelves across the mainland,' a Guohangxin Technology spokeswoman says. The perfume had been sold in China for five years.

'All we can do is express regret, and we also feel it's very sudden,' she says, adding that the decision was 'not very consistent with the country's entering the World Trade Organization.'

Opium, launched in 1977, is one of the world's most popular brands.

Business Daily says the decision originated with consumer complaints in Chengdu, Sichuan province, about two years ago.

Consumers attacked the name as a form of 'spiritual pollution' which gave youth the wrong message. The matter shifted to central-Government level after the manufacturer protested about a local ban.

'Following investigation and assessment, any meaning [of the word] will produce a bad social influence,' the state bureau said in its decision. 'According to rules in clause 27 of the People's Republic of China Brand Law, we believe this brand is unsuitable for registration.'

The narcotic opium has strong historical significance in China because addiction to it was widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The agent's spokeswoman said linking the perfume to the narcotic and Opium Wars was not appropriate. 'Its name is simply meant to be naughty and suggestive, like Christian Dior's Poison.'

The decision was final and could not be appealed, she said, refusing to disclose the amount of potential sales lost.

One of Shanghai's leading department stores said it had not yet received official notice and was still selling Opium.

A spokesman for Italian fashion house Gucci, which owns Yves Saint Laurent, refused to comment. However, a source close to Gucci said the perfume's mainland sales were negligible.

UFO Sightings

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 straitjacketed 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 sheen of scientific respectability.

'Some of these sightings are real, some are fake and with others it's unclear,' says 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 Zedong, 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,' says 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 a 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,' says 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 says. '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,' says 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,' says 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 is 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,' says 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 says. 'Generally, well-developed areas like the United States have reported more sightings.'

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