The Chinese Government has reacted furiously to the protest of a Cambridge graduate student who threw his shoe at Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday. China’s Foreign Ministry described the incident as a “despicable act” whilst there have been calls for a boycott of British goods on high-profile Chinese blogs. The angry reaction only came after 24 hours of silence during which the story was not reported in the Chinese state media. The eventual admission of the incident was a break from the usual official Chinese state media protocol of ignoring anything of potential embarrassment to its leaders. A YouTube video of the shoe-throwing has received almost one million hits. In the video, the graduate, believed by The Cambridge Student (TCS) to be a 27-year-old Pathology supervisor, is seen shouting “dictator” at Mr Wen. The audience, comprising students and staff, then turned on the student, telling him to “get out” and shouting “shame.” Reports suggest that many in the audience were Chinese students. The protester was then led out of the building by proctors and security staff before being arrested and charged with a public order offence by police.
Mr Wen was in Cambridge to give the annual Rede Lecture as part of his three-day visit to the UK. Earlier in the week, he spoke with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, visited the EU headquarters in Brussels and addressed the Davos economic summit in Switzerland. Greeting the arrival of Mr Wen in Cambridge were an estimated 100 protestors as well as many more supporters. Around 30 protestors from Amnesty International held banners declaring ‘Human Rights for China’ and ‘Remember Tiananmen’. Catherine Lough, Chair of Cambridge University Amnesty International, told TCS: “We are protesting to raise awareness of human rights issues in China and their continued violation. The death penalty is still used. 470 people were executed in 2007 and the Government continues to harass human rights activists and use re-education through labour camps.” However, Ke Rong, President of the Cambridge branch of the Chinese Schools and Scholars Association, expressed exasperation with the protesters. “They are not from China and are not familiar with the Chinese system,” said Rong. “The majority of Chinese support the Government, as you can see from this turnout here today. I think there is a misunderstanding of China by the West and I think stronger ties between our countries are needed.” June Wong, a second-year economist at Newnham, told TCS: “I think expressing one’s anger by throwing a shoe is rude and unacceptable, no matter what his intention was. I couldn’t believe this sort of thing could be done by a Cambridge student. He humiliated himself, not Mr Wen. Shame on him.”
Two thousand students and members of staff applied to the University’s International Office for the 500 tickets available to hear Mr Wen’s lecture entitled ‘See China in the Light of Her Development’. There was tight security throughout the afternoon with West Road closed to traffic as Premier Wen arrived. Mr Wen arrived in a large convoy of at least 15 vehicles. All ticket holders were body searched by security staff, in addition to their bags and personal belongings, before being let into the hall. After a short introduction by Vice Chancellor Alison Richard, Mr Wen presented the University with a gift of the China Digital Library, a collection of 200,000 electronic books and articles about China’s politics, economy, history and culture. He then spoke for 40 minutes on the history of China’s development and the importance of strengthening ties between China and the UK. Throughout, he emphasized the “power of knowledge” and the role that young students have to play in solving the world’s problems. He blamed the recent decline in global capital markets on a lack of morality and said he wanted other countries to work with China to build a “new global financial order.” Mr Wen spoke in Mandarin and his words were translated into English via personal headphones.
The protest came five minutes before the end of Mr Wen’s speech. The graduate protester then stood and shouted: “How can the University prostitute itself with this dictator here?” and “How can you listen to the lies he’s telling?” According to eyewitnesses, he was dragged from the row in which he had been sitting and then threw a shoe at Mr Wen, missing by about a metre. As he was being escorted from the hall, he called on the audience to “stand up and protest and get out of here.” Mr Wen described the protest as “despicable.” He added: “Teachers and students, this kind of dirty trick cannot stop the friendship between the Chinese and the British people,” before continuing with his speech to applause. Sir Christopher Humm, Master of Gonville and Caius, and former UK Ambassador to China, moderated a short question and answer session after the speech.
“Following an incident in the auditorium during the Premier’s speech earlier today, a man has been charged with a public order offence’’ a police spokeswoman said. “The 27-year-old man has been charged with section four of the Public Order Act and will appear at Cambridge magistrates court on Tuesday, February 10”. The University has refused to make an official comment on the identity of the protestor until hearing from the police. Alison Richard, the Vice Chancellor, was quoted on Cambridge’s website stating: “We were much honoured that Premier Wen gave the Rede Lecture this afternoon, and I was delighted to accept his gift of the China Digital Library, in recognition of the University’s 800th Anniversary. “I deeply regret that a single member of the audience this af ternoon failed to show the respect for our speaker that is customary at Cambridge. This university is a place for considered argument and debate, not for shoe-throwing”. The Chinese expressed strong dissatisfaction with the protest to the British government, but made clear that it posed no danger to continued ties between China and the UK: “The Chinese side has expressed its strong feelings against the occurrence of the incident . . . Facts show the troublemaker who conducted this mean act is not accepted by the public, and he will not stop the trend of a developing friendly relationship between China and Britain,” said Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu. According to the newspaper China Daily, Ms Yu also stated that “Britain has apologised for the incident.”
Gordon Brown has yet to comment on the protest. When asked about the incident at a press conference, another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said state leaders should be respected. But, to laughter, he added: “Next time I should watch out for not only those who are raising their hands, but also those who are untying their shoelaces.” The incident has been widely compared to the shoe-throwing protest directed at George Bush in January. Muntader al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, threw his shoe at the former American president. Mr Zaidi faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted for the offence.