Beijing, Feb. 4, 2009: After trying for 24 hours to pretend that nothing happened, the Chinese government is now declaring its belated outrage over an incident that saw a protester throw a shoe at Premier Wen Jiabao during his speech at Cambridge University.
The incident occurred Monday as Mr. Wen was giving a speech entitled “See China in the light of her development” to a crowd of some 500 of the university's students and staff. As Mr. Wen was speaking, he was interrupted by an audience member who blew on a whistle and yelled that it was a scandal that Mr. Wen had been invited to speak at Cambridge. “How can the university prostitute itself with this dictator?” the unnamed protester shouted as others in the crowd yelled for him to stop.
He capped off his diatribe Iraqi-style, tugging off his shoe and hurling it towards the podium, where it landed about a metre away from the Chinese premier. Mr. Wen briefly paused to size up the situation and to examine the grey sneaker that now lay to his right.
Then, after the protester was hustled out of the room by British police to face charges of disturbing the public order, he calmly resumed his speech. (You can watch a video of the incident here. The link may not work if you're inside China.)
At first, Beijing tried to act as though nothing had happened. The live broadcast of Mr. Wen's speech on state television was halted immediately after the incident, and no mention of the footwear-hurling was made in yesterday's newspapers.
Today, however, the government changed tact and went on the offensive, labeling the incident to be “despicable behaviour.”
“The Chinese side has expressed its strong feelings against the occurrence of the incident,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement, part of which appeared on the front page of today's China Daily.
The Chinese blogosphere also erupted. A clip of the incident that was eventually posted on the popular sina.com web portal drew more than 8,000 responses, most of which condemned the protester and praised Mr. Wen for his restrained response. Even my Chinese teacher was upset. “Did you see what happened to Premier Wen Jiabao? This is very disappointing,” she told me between lessons on proper sentence structure. “Everybody wants to know who would do this.”
One thing that detracted from China's cries of insult: the same Foreign Ministry that complained of despicable behavior had seen fit to make light of a similar episode last month in Baghdad when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi tossed his size-10s at former U.S. President George W. Bush.
When asked about the Bush incident at a press conference in Beijing soon after that incident, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao earned a few chuckles with his response.
“Next time I should watch out for not only [those] who are raising their hands, but also [those] who are untying their shoelaces,” he said.
Wise advice for Mr. Wen and all world leaders these days. But it appears the Chinese government found such things funnier when the shoe was on the other foot.