Jiang Yanyong, the retired People's Liberation Army doctor whose disclosure campaign forced the central government to come clean on Sars, should be given an international award for bravery. Dr Jiang, 72, wrote to the international media on April 6, challenging then health minister Zhang Wenkang's assertions that Beijing was safe and that the Sars situation was under control. Without Dr Jiang's frank letter, the foreign media would not have been able to force officials to reveal the true extent of Sars. Dr Jiang's letter said the number of Sars cases in one PLA hospital alone was more than four times higher than the total official figure of 22, and there had been at least 10 deaths - more than twice the official count of four. As of yesterday, there were 1,803 cases with 100 deaths in Beijing alone, an explosive growth over just three weeks. One can only imagine how much more severe the crisis could have become if the government had not confronted the problem, sacked the health minister and shortened the May 1 holidays. Dr Jiang's bravery is extraordinary considering how intellectuals on the mainland have been conditioned to operate. Oppressed by the party for years, most dare not express criticism, let alone speak the truth. During the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960, intellectuals who criticised Chairman Mao Zedong's policies were persecuted as 'rightists'. During the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals were purged as 'capitalists roaders'. Soon after the Tiananmen Incident of June 4, 1989, intellectuals who dared to openly criticise the government were arrested as 'counter-revolutionaries'. Fortunately, Beijing has eased off considerably, and now some intellectuals dare to openly criticise policies. Even so, Dr Jiang took an extraordinary risk by contradicting the official line last month. He had more protection than the average person, as a senior PLA officer, the head of surgery at PLA Hospital 301, and a member of the Communist Party for 50 years. Still, Dr Jiang could have kept his mouth shut and continued to live a peaceful life. Instead, he provoked the wrath of the government and forced it to confront the reality of Sars. Thus far, Dr Jiang has not been threatened by the government. But nobody should be surprised if he faces retribution down the road, once the Sars situation is under control. 'I'm not afraid,' he told me recently. 'I want the world to know the truth.' Though Dr Jiang refuses to speculate on the dangers he might face, one leading economist told me candidly: 'The party still watches us intellectuals. We have more freedom to speak than ever before, but we should always be careful.' It is sad that intellectuals on the mainland still risk their personal freedoms when they speak out. China's greatest assets are its intellectuals. Yes, China is already a great nation, but it will be greater - one of the greatest in the world - when every mainland Chinese can speak freely without fear of reprisal.