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Chinese Fascinated by Gulf War, Strongly Back U.S. : Reaction: The government maintains a neutral stance. But some in Beijing say Bush should get tougher.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a couple of peasant farmers from China’s far northeast visited a friend here last month, they weren’t interested in seeing the sights. All they cared about, their young Chinese host said, was keeping score on the Gulf War: Who had used what weapons and how many planes had been shot down?

“They treated the fighting like a soccer match,” he lamented. “It was really shocking to me to see these people more excited about people dying than I had ever seen them before.”

Since the first U.S. bombs fell on Baghdad, a curious kind of war fever has swept China, despite efforts by the state-run media to cool the excitement with low-key reporting.

Most public sentiment in Beijing is vehemently pro-American. In conversations, Chinese often say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be punished. Expressions of hope for still-fiercer attacks on Iraqi forces are common.

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"(President) Bush is much too weak,” a taxi driver complained. “He should go in there and get rid of Hussein with one nuclear bomb. Then this would all be over.”

But beneath the surface, fascination with the war and the outpouring of support for the United States may reveal as much about China’s domestic situation as it does about public views on the Middle East conflict.

Chinese intellectuals and Western diplomats say this support carries at least three underlying messages unrelated to the Gulf: boredom with daily life, anger at China’s dictatorial leaders and respect for U.S. political freedoms and technological sophistication.

The Chinese government, which abstained on the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, is taking an almost neutral position on the war. It keeps condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but calls for a peaceful settlement. The nightly television news usually carries brief clips from American sources, immediately followed by footage presenting Iraq’s view.

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This middle-of-the-road stance is “unmanly,” complained a Chinese army veteran who like others objected to his country remaining on the sidelines. “It would be glorious for China to join the coalition forces in this fight.”

He said that some of his friends think China has made a mistake by failing to send troops to join the multinational force. “Some people think it would be a good opportunity for the Chinese army to get more experience,” he said.

State-run media, even while portraying citizens as being united in hopes for peace, have acknowledged that they are showing extraordinary interest in the war. For example, the Chinese Youth News reported in January that the war’s outbreak prompted a run on shortwave radios at Beijing’s biggest department store.

Most people in China, locked into secure but low-paying jobs, endure exceedingly dull, monotonous daily lives. This is a place where ordinary car accidents or even loud street quarrels quickly draw swarms of excited onlookers. For many people, watching news film of laser-guided bombs blowing up bridges and ammunition dumps is the most exciting thing to happen in a long time.

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“My feeling is bomb, bomb!” a young woman office worker said with a laugh. “It’s a kind of an emotional release for general depression.”

Ever since the Chinese army crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy in Beijing in June, 1989, it has been extremely dangerous to publicly criticize China’s dictatorial leaders. Some Chinese say that Hussein provides a convenient target of rage for youths whose real anger is directed at those who ordered the crackdown.

After the pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed, the Chinese media launched a shrill ideological campaign blaming the United States for siding with the protesters. Against this background, backing for the United States in the Gulf War can constitute both an endorsement of American values and a subtle rebuke to China’s leaders.

One expression of these feelings has been writing to the U.S. Embassy, which has received more than 80 letters from ordinary Chinese. All but a handful back America. At least a dozen included contributions. Most contributions were of 30 yuan to 50 yuan ($6 to $10) but one had a $50 bill. Take-home pay for most Chinese is only about $30 a month, so such sums can represent a real sacrifice.

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“You (support) justice in the fighting against the devil, in protecting democracy, freedom and human rights from the dictators of the world,” said one letter, written in English. “In the events of Panama, Nicaragua guerrillas and U.S.S.R. forces marching to Lithuania, all you have done (is) not for the sake of yourself but for the people of the world. . . . I’ll respond to your call against dictatorship at any time if possible.”

Televised displays of U.S. weapons technology have deeply impressed the Chinese.

“This precision bombing is really beautiful,” the army veteran said. “It shows the almost perfect skill of the pilots--it’s a kind of art.”

He observed of the Gulf War: “Some people want it to get even bigger. They hope for World War III and the use of nuclear bombs. Especially young people, because they have no experience of war.”

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China’s military leaders also seem to have been impressed. After praising the way the Patriot missiles have knocked out the Scuds, an army commentator wrote in Liberation Army Daily, “We are seeing the warfare of the 21st Century used on the battlefield today.”

However, sympathy for Iraq is growing. A Chinese cook said he “supported the U.S. action at first. But now, ordinary people are suffering from the bombing. It’s too cruel.”

The Chinese saw some of the most graphic views of the war’s human toll last week on television: rescue workers and scenes of blanket-covered bodies at a bombed-out Baghdad structure. The clip was from a U.S. network, as is much of the international footage on Chinese TV.

The report described the bombed structure simply as a civilian air raid shelter. The Baghdad shots were followed by reports from Washington, quoting White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater questioning Iraq’s claims that it was a civilian bomb shelter and stating that Hussein could prevent civilian casualties by pulling out of Kuwait. The U.S. position that the shelter was a military command and control bunker was reported the next day in official newspapers.

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Although this kind of incident contributes to an undercurrent of sympathy for the Iraqi people, it has not shaken the overall pattern of pro-American sentiment.

“The Chinese people have seen so much war,” said a government employee in his mid-30s. “They know that when there is fighting, civilians die. And if the United States says it won’t bomb civilians, then, of course, Hussein will put military targets in civilian areas. People think Saddam Hussein is crazy, not the United States. This event won’t affect how people feel about the war.”

Except for the war’s first day, reports have generally been relegated to newspapers’ inside pages. The official media here may be reporting Gulf news in such a low-key fashion in part so that the government does not inflame the passions of China’s Muslim minorities.

This is an especially sensitive issue in the far western region of Xinjiang, where officials have acknowledged that a clash last year between Muslim Uighurs and Chinese security forces left at least 22 people dead.

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The pro-China Wenhui Daily of Hong Kong has reported that Beijing authorities have denied permission to Arab and local students, presumably Muslims, to demonstrate about the war. And one of the few unsupportive letters received by the U.S. Embassy came from a former student at Ningxia University, located in a region of western China with a large Muslim population.

Some letters and phone calls to the embassy have come from people who want to join U.S. forces in the Gulf. “I’m going to follow the example of international volunteers safeguarding Madrid against fascists in the 1930s,” wrote one enthusiastic volunteer.

Times researcher Nick Driver contributed to this article.


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