BEIJING -- While the Chinese government has been studiously neutral on the Persian Gulf war and its state-run news media have been playing down the military action, many Chinese seem to be rabidly interested in the course of the conflict and to be strongly siding with the U.S. position.
When the first bombing raids on Iraq were announced in the classrooms at one Beijing college -- the University of International Business and Finance -- students spontaneously broke into clapping and cheering.
Since the onset of the fighting, sales of shortwave radios have soared despite official efforts to discourage interest in the war.
Scores of letters from around China -- some with donations of $2 to $200 and at least one with an offer to sign up to fight against Iraq -- have poured into the U.S. and Kuwaiti embassies.
One schoolgirl even showed up at the Kuwait Embassy to contribute her life savings, a plastic bag of coins.
And along Beijing's byways, Americans working here have found many Chinese unusually eager to offer, even in the most casual encounters, signals of support.
"Of course most people are supporting America," said a 24-year-old street peddler. "It's just like World War II, when Japan invaded China -- and America came to protect us."
Some of the letters to the U.S. Embassy referred to President Bush as "a king of heroes" and to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as "less than a dog." Most of the letters praise the United States for, as one Shanghai man put it, "fighting for justice."
One Chinese worker offered what he said was a new way to TC safely detonate Iraqi land mines.
A 24-year-old Shanghai clerk who wrote seeking to join the allied military forces noted among his qualifications that he is the exact same height as the allied commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Another Chinese letter-writer even quoted Mao Tse-tung in concluding that the U.S. forces must prevail. "Where the broom does not reach," she wrote, "the dust will not vanish of itself."
As the war wears on and Iraqi civilians suffer more losses from the bombing, the degree of pro-American support may be eroding.
"In the beginning, there was much sympathy for America," a middle-age office worker said Friday. "But now many people are beginning to feel that the bombing is too much."
Nonetheless, the gulf war so far has provided another example of the divergence between the views of many Chinese -- particularly young Chinese -- and their government.
China, which backed all United Nations resolutions against Iraq until it abstained from the vote authorizing the use of force, has adhered to a carefully crafted diplomatic stance of neutrality, both condemning Iraq for invading Kuwait and repeatedly calling for peace.
China's gulf war policy is a function of the government's desire to strike an independent posture, limit U.S. dominance of whatever world order evolves from the war and maintain China's ideological stand as the self-proclaimed leader of the Third World.
"The Chinese are trying to be very cautious, preparing themselves to gain no matter which way the war ends up," said a U.S. diplomat. "They're trying to play the middle role and not alienate anyone, and they may be doing it very skillfully."
Added another U.S. diplomat: "Our Chinese contacts say we're afraid of you guys ending up so dominant in the world."
As a result, official Chinese statements on the war have taken great care to refer to both sides as "the belligerents," and the state news media generally have been giving more prominence to preparations for the coming Chinese New Year festivities than to the war's progress.
The day the United States attacked Iraq, for instance, the main state-controlled television news program reported it only after first reporting on a meeting between Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin and a North Korean delegation. Since then, war news has been relegated to the last part of the TV news show.
China's leading paper, People's Daily, has run front-page articles on the war only nine times during thewar's first three weeks, and these mostly have been about China's calls for peace.
Discussion of the war in the mainland-controlled press in Hong Kong -- whose independent legislature decided Friday to contribute $29 million to the allied effort -- has been more lively and open, expressing China's fear that the conflict will lead to a permanent expansion of the U.S. presence in the Middle East and to the introduction of Western-style democratic reforms there.
Another fear of Chinese officials, according to foreign diplomats, is that the war will provide an irrefutable exhibition of the supremacy of Western weaponry, particularly over the more than $1 billion worth of weapons that China annually sold to Iraq in the decade before the recent U.N.-imposed trade embargo.
Indeed, the most detailed, at times awe-struck, Chinese accounts of the high-tech war being waged by U.S. forces have been in the daily newspaper published by the People's Liberation Army, a force not dissimilar to Iraq's in its orientation toward conventional land battles and a force that lately has been struggling with its own need to modernize.