Sima Nan (Chinese: 司马南; born 1956 (age 56–57)) is a television pundit, social commentator, and journalist from the People's Republic of China. He is well known for his criticism of pseudoscience and supernatural phenomena, especially his opposition to what he called qigong-related fraud. He is also active as a blogger and owns a television production company. According to Ian Johnson, Sima is "a longtime debunker of charlatans" who came to prominence following the 1999 anti-Falun Gong campaign. Sima regularly appears on state-run television programs and has received the "Hero of Atheism" award, as well as the "Award for Special Contributions to Opposing Fake Science."
Sima was born in Jilin Province, although Shandong is considered his ancestral home. Sima was originally a peasant and later a construction worker, and now works as a journalist and television producer. He was banned from writing for three years as a consequence of his support for the 1989 democracy movement, though he remains a member of the Communist Party of China.
Sima studied qigong while at college. After graduation, at the end of 1981, he was assigned to work for the central government in Beijing. His biography published in the Skeptical Inquirer states that he was influenced by the book Human Body Science (Chinese: 人体科学) by China’s leading physicist Qian Xuesen. As a result, he became involved in the Chinese Human Body Science Association, through which Sima had an opportunity to witness demonstrations of the prominent masters of the time, for whom he used to run errands. Sima says this included transferring title of property the masters received from grateful followers. By 1990, he says he became disillusioned with the deception practised by the qigong masters he had come into contact with, and found that the Qigong Science Research Association had little to do with serious research but was in fact interested in gaining influence and financial reward.
Critic of Qigong
As a long time student and practitioner of Qigong, a form of Chinese meditation and breathing exercises, Sima believes in the physiological benefits of Qigong, but says he opposes the "trickery." He describes himself as an opponent of "mystic spiritual masters": "I was exposing the fake 'masters' before the party leadership cared about them," he said in an interview.
Sima says that the government had been harassing him until 1999, when the official policy on qigong underwent a reversal. Sima authored a book, A Secret Record of Pseudo-qigong, and also produced a television film, The Inside Story of Mysterious Gong.
Sima says he is motivated only by the satisfaction of unmasking cheats who he says prey on uneducated Chinese. His Skeptics biography alleged that, during the golden decade of qigong, the qigong network had sought to influence the highest level of the country’s leadership. Governmental departments set up qigong research and development units and invested large sums of money for that purpose; people of all socioeconomic levels were deceived, in his view.
Sima became a qigong master himself and worked as a leading qigong pundit in Beijing from 1990 to 1995. His work influenced China Central Television to pull qigong performances from the annual CCTV New Year's Gala from 1991 onwards. Sima held that qigong itself was scientific, but that other masters' claims of supernatural capabilities were deceitful tricks. He offered as proof his own performances in front of large audiences exactly mirroring those by qigong masters who claimed to have supernatural capabilities. Sima would also attend the seminars of qigong master and expose them in front of journalists; he would also argue and debate with them, which was well received by journalists who joined him. Later, however, he was denounced as a "traitor" and expelled from the Human Body Science Association.
Demand for Sima's consulting services increased following the ban of Falun Gong; he traveled around the country to give lectures, only charging travel expenses. Sima said that although he supported the government's ban on Falun Gong, he held reservations about the government's vitriolic campaign against the practice and the hundreds of arrests. In 2000, The Globe and Mail reported that Sima had been asked by the Canadian government to assist them in combating illegal immigration from China: faced with many boat people arriving on Canada's west coast from China who claim persecution as members of Falun Gong in order to gain refugee status, the Canadians are hoping for help in assessing the applications. Sima referred to ufologists as "romantics", saying that those who alleged to have seen UFOs or have had extraterrestrial encounters, all lack hard evidence to prove their claims via objective and scientific methods.
In September 2008, following the Beijing Olympics, Sima was interviewed by the BBC, and defended Chinese censorship regulations and the media firewall on Falun Gong in mainland China. Sima said that the group disseminates material that is blatantly "anti-China" in nature and that the Chinese public has long grown irritated with "Falun Gong rhetoric."
Work as Sceptic
Since 1990, Sima Nan has collaborated with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) and is now an investigator at a new branch of CAST, the Committee of Scientific Thinking, which he helped found. The agency will test claims of the paranormal, and has a standing offer of ¥ one million to anyone who can perform one act of "special ability" (i.e. paranormal) without cheating. American sceptic James Randi made an agreement with Sima that anyone whoever wins his One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge would automatically win Sima's million yuan.
- Johnson, Ian (30 August 1999). "Who Ya Gonna Call? In China, Debunkers Hire a Cultbuster". The Wall Street Journal.
- Hitchens, Christopher (20 November 2000). "For Whom the Gong Tolls". The Nation. Retrieved 21 October 2009.
- Mainfort, Donald (March 1999). "Sima Nan: Fighting Qigong Pseudoscience in China". Skeptical Inquirer 9.1.
- Hsiao, Guang; Luo, Leanne (translator). "A Cult in Contemporary China: Qigong". Breaking Through the Barriers of Darkness: Recognizing the Cult of Qigong for What It Is. ChinaforJesus.com.
- Rosenthal, Elisabeth (20 November 1999). "A Star Turn for China's Cult Buster". New York Times.
- Cernetig, Miro (31 January 2000). "Beijing Cult Buster Aids Canadian Embassy: Communist Party member to help identify fake falun gong members among refugee claimants". The Globe and Mail.
- "Focus: Ufology in mysticism". China Daily (HK Edition). 12 December 2003.
- "司马南与BBC辩论"普世价值" (Sima Nan debates with the BBC on "Universal Values")". CRI Online.
- Randi, James (30 November 1999). "If it's Friday, then this must be China....". Randi.org. Retrieved 21 October 2009.
- Buckley, Chris; Rhoads, Brian; Norton, Jerry (29 July 2008). "China Party pundit spies battle outside Games arena". Reuters.
- 马国川 (13 June 2008). "网络上"震"出了一个司马南 (The Earthquake, The Internet and Sima Nan)". 经济观察报 (Economic Observer) vols. 45,46 (in Chinese). 新语丝. translation
- Official blog of Sima Nan (Chinese)