A recent Atlantic article describes why, technologically, China may be the first nation to discover extraterrestrial intelligence. A huge radio telescope, called FAST, has put China far ahead of other nations in the ability to search for far off signals that might have been created by an extraterrestrial civilization. How open would the Chinese be to sharing such a discovery? Would they try and manage communications with extraterrestrials on their own?
The Chinese are taking space exploration seriously. The construction of FAST, which stands for Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, cost more than $184 million and included relocating more than 2,000 Chinese families near the construction project to create a “sound electromagnetic wave environment.” That’s a fancy way of saying that they are clearing out humans to prevent electronic interference to their listening project. Just try doing that in the United States. And despite news reports focusing on uses of the radio telescope in the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence, the main function of the technology is to examine pulsars, black holes and gas clouds.
However, Chinese astronomers are working closely with their counterparts in America and Australia in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as part of the Breakthrough Listen international project. That means that technically they should follow the long-established First Contact protocol endorsed by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).
SETI organizations have advocated for the use of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) telegram system (which one assumes has evolved well beyond telegrams) in any signal discovery. It is used for communication between astronomers at various observatories. This would be critical in a detection, because that detection would need to be confirmed by several different observatories before the signal could be declared not of Earth origin and not a natural phenomenon. That means even a Chinese detection would need to involve scientists from other countries, and thus such a discovery would be tough for any one government to control. And that includes the United States.
But what if First Contact is not discovery based, but rather direct? What if the aliens reach out to contact humans? Such an event has no protocol. One could infer from the wording of the IAA-SETI protocol that such contact should be treated as any other scientific discovery. Perhaps scientists would do so. But if aliens come to our solar system to say hello, they wouldn’t necessarily contact human scientists. They could spend some time learning our languages; have a probe connect to our internet; and then simply email politicians or the news media a greeting. Granted, that type of contact would be complicated given how skeptically most humans would react. But there would be no reason to approach scientists first, unless you wanted to have them involved.
At the very beginning of this blog (ten years ago), I provided a Direct First Contact scenario that relies on the use of the American broadcast news media to reach all of humanity at once with messaging from extraterrestrials, avoiding control by any one nation. However, America is a complicated country right now, politically. Alien visitors may determine that China has a more stable form of government. Research studies have shown the Chinese to be generally positive about First Contact issues.
So, would it make more sense for aliens to send their greeting to Chinese researchers or perhaps the Chinese government directly? Clearly that depends on what the aliens are trying to accomplish. If they want to deal directly with the largest and most stable government on planet Earth, China would make a good choice. However, there would be a severe consequence- Russian and American leaders would be immediately suspicious. It would be hard to overcome that suspicion. The same would be true if an extraterrestrial civilization contacted the Russian or American governments first. Any First Contact between an extraterrestrial civilization and one nation is going to be viewed suspiciously by other nations. That reaction could be dangerous, setting up a potential global conflict. And it would be hard to overcome the suspicion, no matter how transparent the nation was in revealing First Contact. Conspiracy is a tough thing to disprove when a situation starts with secrecy.
An alien craft could land in China, in much the same scenario as the American one I describe on this blog. The Chinese news media have the technology needed to cover such an event and could quickly share it with the rest of the world via satellite. But would they? The Chinese media is closely controlled by the government. Even if a media outlet was to begin covering an extraterrestrial contact event, there is no guarantee that they would be allowed to continue broadcasting. The same could be said of Russia, where the media is also carefully managed. The United States government could try to stop coverage of the landing of an alien spacecraft, but it wouldn’t be easy. In the United States the distributed nature of the news media means that no one national outlet controls coverage. For example, the ABC TV network has many affiliates, but very few are directly controlled by the network itself. Most are independently owned by many different companies. There is no place on the planet that has the number of broadcast outlets with full service news operations as the United States. Cracking down on all of those regional broadcast news operations would be tough. And even then, the American Internet would be carrying the event via citizen journalists on social media. Such Internet coverage could be curtailed quickly in China. It could not be easily shut down in the United States. And if one social media platform was carrying First Contact, American competition would soon have every social media platform, and every traditional media outlet, fighting to cover First Contact.
China has become a leading force in science on planet Earth. The investment of billions of dollars in scientific research will make them a growing influence for many generations to come. It’s critical to consider China in any First Contact scenario. But the closely guarded nature of Chinese electronic discourse means the country is a poor candidate for Direct First Contact. If the goal of extraterrestrial representatives is to reach all of humanity at once, they would be advised to take a close look at human communications technology and find a way to bypass governments and scientists altogether.