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Iraq and a Great Leap for Chinese Intellectuals

Even before images of the first cruise missile strikes on Baghdad reached Chinese TV screens, the country's intellectuals were debating the US-led war against Iraq and the government's response. Commentaries in leading newspapers and on-line journals demonstrated a diversity of opinion seldom seen in the country's state-controlled media, and precipitated wider discussion in people's living rooms.

Most debates addressed whether the war was justified. Opinions were voiced in newspapers and in on-line forums such as the home page of the media school of Qinghua University, widely known as "China's MIT." It posted an anti-war petition with over 1,000 signatories, mostly academics.

Although this grassroots response adhered to the government's anti-war stand, it remains surprising in a country that discourages unscripted political discourse. So it was even more surprising to see pro-war sentiments expressed publicly, such as the petition that appeared in the Guangzhou-based weekly newspaper 21st Century World Herald . That petition voiced a taboo viewpoint: that "human rights are of greater value than national sovereignty."

In a rare challenge to the government, Beijing-based writer Yu Jie, one of the petition's authors, wrote that China ought to support the war on Iraq. Only by embracing universal values and distancing itself from "evil states," Yu argued, can China rise to the level of the world's mainstream democracies.