BEIJING — The looming threat of U.S. air strikes in Syria has shone a light on pervasive Chinese fears that the U.S. will act alone and without international consensus in a key region of the world.
"America should not act as the world policeman," said Richy Li, 24, an English teacher in Beijing. "Even if it is proven that Syria has chemical weapons, it should be up to the United Nations to find the solution."
"If America is allowed to attack Syria, then America will do the same to other countries, for example Iran or North Korea," he said.
Syria's two-year civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and made several million more homeless, is being covered extensively by China's official and online media.
There is overwhelming opposition in China to possible U.S. military strikes in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack that the Obama administration blames on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"By violating other countries' sovereignty, America does not respect human rights at all," argued Old Master Li, 60, who works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant.
The Communist Party's flagship newspaper also accused the U.S. of pursuing regime change — a serious allegation in China.
"Since the start of Syria's civil war, the impulse to forcefully topple the Assad government has never vanished," the People's Daily said.
In another signed commentary, the paper claimed that the U.S. was "eagerly wanting to 'smuggle contraband' to help the opposition, promote regime change, and thus establish international rules and international order that is advantageous to them," notwithstanding the U.S. denial to the contrary.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Wang Yi continued to call for "calm and restraint," declaring that China supports the U.N. investigation of suspected chemical weapons use in Syria.
Military force would not help resolve the crisis and would only worsen the Middle East turmoil, he said, according to Xinhua, China's official news agency.
"Before the investigation finds out what really happened, all parties should avoid prejudging the results and certainly ought not to forcefully push for the Security Council to take action," he was quoted as saying.
At the heart of many people's fears about U.S. involvement in Syria was a fear of becoming embroiled in the events of another country.
"Using chemical weapons on civilians is bad, but launching war will only make more ordinary people suffer," said Guan Yongxing, 61, a retired Beijing taxi driver, adding, however, that "China should not get too involved in external conflicts, because it will only divert our resources from economic development which should be the priority."
The dominant anti-war opinion appears to provide domestic support for China's strategy to oppose unilateral military intervention, seek a negotiated political solution in Syria and direct the debate to the U.N. Security Council, where it has veto power. It has exercised such veto power twice to support the Assad regime.
"I support peace and oppose war. We could punish Syria through economic sanctions," said Li Yilin, 22, an accountant.
China, however, is leaving nothing to chance, ordering all its citizens except necessary diplomatic personnel to leave Syria "as soon as possible." And some of its citizens, at least, said it was necessary for the government of President Xi Jinping to be actively involved in the region.
"I am against war because many civilians will suffer," said Shi Fengjin, 39, a car mechanic from the central province of Henan. "China, however, must be actively involved in Middle East affairs to protect our interests, because we need oil."
Grace Huang Pei contributed to this report.
More on Syria from NBC News:
- Kerry calls attack against Syrian civilians 'crime against humanity'
- John Kerry's nine reasons for action in Syria
- Exclusive: Panetta says US can't wait for others to act on Syria
- Doctor: 'Apocalyptic' attack on Syrian schoolkids
- Read Secretary of State Kerry's full speech condemning Syria attack
- 'We will not repeat that moment': Why Syria isn't a rerun of Iraq
- NBC poll: Nearly 80 percent want congressional approval on Syria
- US-UK 'special relationship' bruised after Syria rebuff
- Syrian Electronic Army seen as nuisance, not a serious cyberthreat