‘Thank the aliens’: Thou­sands dis­placed for China’s huge te­le­scope Seek­ing global promi­nence

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Hu­man­ity’s best bet at de­tect­ing aliens is a gi­ant sil­ver Chi­nese dish the size of 30 foot­ball fields-one that si­mul­ta­ne­ously show­cases Bei­jing’s abil­i­ties to de­ploy cut­tingedge tech­nolo­gies and ig­nore ob­jec­tors’ rights as it seeks global promi­nence.

The Five-hun­dred-me­ter Aper­ture Spher­i­cal Te­le­scope (FAST) in the coun­try’s southwest, which was launched in Septem­ber and cost 1.2 bil­lion yuan ($180 mil­lion) to build, is the world’s largest ra­dio te­le­scope.

Once fully op­er­a­tional, FAST will be able to peer deeper into space than ever be­fore, ex­am­in­ing pul­sars, dark mat­ter and grav­i­ta­tional wavesand search­ing for signs of life. Au­thor­i­ties also hope it will bring tourist dol­lars to the province of Guizhou, one of China’s poor­est re­gions. But it comes at the cost of forcibly dis­plac­ing about 9,000 vil­lagers who called the site in Ping­tang county their home.

Many were out­raged at be­ing forced to leave the val­ley sur­rounded by forested karst hills and hun­dreds of families are now su­ing the gov­ern­ment, with some cases be­ing heard this week.

Oc­to­ge­nar­ian Han Jingfu drank pes­ti­cide days after be­ing made to sign a re­lo­ca­tion con­tract and died at his front door, neigh­bors and rel­a­tives said. China built FAST as part of ef­forts to take on in­ter­na­tional ri­vals and raise its em­bar­rass­ingly low tally of No­bel Prizes, ex­plained Peng Bo, direc­tor of China’s Na­tional Astro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­to­ries, which over­sees the te­le­scope.

The 500-me­tre-wide (1,640 feet) dish dwarfs its near­est com­peti­tor, the US’s Puerto Rico-based Arecibo te­le­scope, which is only 305 me­ters across. “We said we had to be a lit­tle more dar­ing, be­cause we had to sur­pass the US no mat­ter what,” Peng said. “I think we can get a few No­bel prizes out of it. We as Chi­nese peo­ple re­ally want to win them.”

The world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try and se­cond-largest econ­omy has so far only won one sci­en­tific No­bel, awarded last year to chemist Tu Youyou for medicine. FAST’s re­ceivers are more sen­si­tive than any pre­vi­ous ra­dio te­le­scope, and its pi­o­neer­ing tech­nol­ogy can change the shape of the dish to track ce­les­tial ob­jects as the Earth ro­tates. It could cat­a­logue as many pul­sars in a year as had been found in the past 50, Peng said. But he ac­knowl­edged that FAST will be over­taken by the larger Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray te­le­scope in South Africa and Aus­tralia, which will be built over the next decade.

‘Pushed into a cor­ner’

FAST needs a five kilo­me­ter-wide (three miles) “ra­dio si­lence” buf­fer zone around it with elec­tron­ics banned in or­der to re­duce in­ter­fer­ence with the sky’s much fainter fre­quen­cies. Re­lo­cated res­i­dents would “en­joy bet­ter liv­ing stan­dards”, the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency said when the dish was com­pleted in July. “Vil­lagers in nearby com­mu­ni­ties ad­mired their luck, say­ing they should ‘thank the aliens’,” it added.

But vil­lagers al­lege land grabs with­out com­pen­sa­tion, forced de­mo­li­tions and un­law­ful de­ten­tions, and up to 500 families are su­ing the Ping­tang county gov­ern­ment. Lu Zhen­g­long, whose case was heard Tues­day, said of­fi­cials de­mol­ished his house with­out warn­ing or con­sent when he was not even present, bury­ing his fur­ni­ture. “What would have hap­pened if I had been in­side?” he told AFP, adding that au­thor­i­ties had “pushed or­di­nary peo­ple into a cor­ner. It’s re­ally un­be­liev­able”. A neigh­bor also sur­named Lu said: “They’ve chased us all off to some waste­land and or­dered us to live there with no way to main­tain our old stan­dards of liv­ing. For 90 per­cent of us, ba­sic sur­vival is a prob­lem.”

The rub­ble of their homes now lies un­der soil and new saplings in a tourist park just out­side the ra­dio si­lence zone, with a mu­seum, a spacethemed ho­tel and vis­i­tor re­cep­tion fa­cil­i­ties which will sell tick­ets for nearly $100 each. Ac­cord­ing to the Ping­tang county gov­ern­ment web­site, the park was aimed at “high-end peo­ple from de­vel­oped cities” and cost more than 1.5 bil­lion yuan-more than the te­le­scope it­self.

‘Eye to the sky’

Meng Xi­u­jun, whose Elites Law Firm in the south­ern city of Guangzhou is han­dling most of the cases, said of­fi­cials tried to in­tim­i­date him, telling him he should “see the big­ger pic­ture for a key na­tional project”. But he told AFP: “This isn’t just a mat­ter of eco­nomic in­ter­ests-once you start ask­ing av­er­age cit­i­zens to kneel down or beat them, it be­comes about hu­man rights and prob­lems with China’s rule of law.” The Ping­tang county gov­ern­ment did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment by AFP. — AFP

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