Even before images of the first cruise missile strikes on Baghdad reached Chinese television screens, the country's intellectuals were debating the US-led war against Iraq and the government's response. Commentaries in leading newspapers and online 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 online 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 (余杰), 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.
Others, such as Han Deqiang of Beijing's aerospace university, who wrote an anti-war commentary that accompanied Yu's essay, scoffed at such an idea. Han called pro-war Chinese intellectuals hopelessly naive and overly "immersed in the American dream."
But others supported Yu Jie's critique. The Beijing-based dissident writer Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), an activist intellectual in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, questioned the government's motives for opposing the war. Since 1989, Liu wrote, the Chinese government has nurtured a strident nationalism to boost its own legitimacy. Moreover, Liu argued, the government's marginalization of pro-war sentiment and promotion of anti-war views accords with its broader effort to ascribe almost every domestic and international disaster to American hegemony.
Although the surface of this debate is about America and Iraq, the subtext, as always, concerns China. Indeed, the debate revealed political fault lines among Chinese intellectuals that could never be openly exposed on domestic policy.
Ultimately, the two main camps of China's intelligentsia -- the "neo-leftists" and "old liberals" -- ask the question that has divided Chinese intellectuals for a century: what does it mean to be Chinese and also to be modern? Does it mean following the West (as liberals advocate) or, as the neo-leftists suggest, is there some Third Way between Communism and western-style democratic capitalism? Most fundamentally, can the scope of economic disaster witnessed following the Soviet Union's collapse be avoided?
Both groups comprise scholars from numerous fields, state intellectuals serving in government think tanks, journalists and even some dissidents. Liberals are known to favor more thorough economic and political reforms, such as democratization at the grassroots level and a free press. Conservatives insist on a more cautious approach that avoids the "shock therapy" and drastic overhauls experienced in postcommunist Eastern Europe.