EDITORIAL: A shoe, Belgrade and Wen Jiabao

Tue, Feb 10, 2009 - Page 8

Following the famous incident of the shoe thrower targeting former US president George W. Bush during a visit to Baghdad in December, it was Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) turn last week to find himself in the crosshairs while giving a speech at Cambridge University in the UK.

Martin Jahnke, a 27-year-old pathology student at the university, allegedly aimed rubber at Wen to express his outrage that the academic institution would “prostitute itself with this dictator here.”

Despite the outrage that this incident sparked and initial attempts by Beijing to cover it up, the failed attack circulated on the Internet and, for once, was accessible in China.

Yesterday, a remarkably forgiving Wen called on Cambridge not to expel Jahnke, adding that his continued education would allow him to gain a better understanding of the “real and developing China.”

This gentle departure was somewhat out of character for a leadership that has cracked down on its people, or lashed out at foreign governments, for far less. For once, a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official had faced physical violence, but rather than threatening retaliation or rehashing the claim that the feelings of the Chinese people had been hurt, Beijing turned the other cheek and presented a rational face, which Wen did with humor and dexterity.

There is no question, however, that if the shoe thrower had been Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur or Taiwanese, and the attack had occurred on Chinese soil, Wen and his government would have been far less forgiving. Luckily for Jahnke, he was on British soil — and Beijing saw in his salvo an opportunity to turn a slight to its advantage.

What better in times of economic hardship, with millions of Chinese out of work and the state anticipating a year of greater social instability, than to resuscitate the age-old ally of governments: nationalism? Rather than spark a war of words with Cambridge or London, Beijing chose to take the moral high ground, showing the world that “rational” CCP leaders are far more civilized than the “troublemakers,” the likes of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the odd shoe-thrower — thereby giving Chinese reasons to take pride in their leadership.

As with the accidental bombing by US aircraft of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO aerial campaign in 1999, the shoe incident will allow the CCP to spark nationalist sentiment by refocusing public anger and loss of face toward an external agent. Back in 1999, it was the US; this time around, it will be anti-China elements and academic institutions that don’t “get” China.

Ironically, with one shoe, a student who probably wished to “do good” by expressing his displeasure at having a member of a repressive government speak at his university may have given Beijing the break it needed as China awaits intensified social upheaval. One misplaced incident, however warranted it might have been in the mind of the actor, may distract Chinese who otherwise would have focused their energies on criticizing a government that fails to deliver.