Wednesday, February 4, 2009

When keyboards clattered, the press kept silent

Is throwing shoes at a political speaker the latest fad? U.S. President George W. Bush nearly got two shoes from a Iraqi reporter while speaking last December. Only three days ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was received the same way when he was delivering speech at Cambridge University on the Britain leg of his European tour.

I first noticed the happening when most of my friends on, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, changed their personal messages to “China cannot be toyed with!””Bravo, Premier Wen!” Some even quoted his response to the shoe-throwing, “this kind of dirty trick cannot stop the friendship between the Chinese and the British people.” The link to the footage already was being widely shared by users.

Western people might be more accustomed to political figures being disrupted and even attacked by dissidents; China, where harmony is the core philosophical and political conception, discipline is advocated ever since Confucius’ time, and little open opposition is allowed, is not. But what also merits attention is, unlike American people in Bush’s case poking fun at their president, Chinese have a great admiration for their premier that is beyond imagination. He is the nation's most popular figure and has earned himself the nickname Grandpa Wen. This shoe-thrower obviously picked the wrong target. So soon after that happened, agitated Chinese poured out their indignation on the internet, “Brits, let’s see which country has more shoes,” one comment read on

I was curious about how the government would comment on this, so I visited a very authoritative news portal site (its English version is, whose server is in China, but found no inkling of anything wrong. The headline section only featured a story titled “Premier Wen gave a speech at Cambridge, addressing global economic issues,” and posted the full text of his speech. All other news sites I visited were all the same. At the same time, I found that my contacts’ comments denouncing the shoe-throwing were one by one deleted by the website administrator.

This amused me. It does not make any sense that all news websites keep mum about such an eye-catching event while so many people are talking about it. It is also absurd if you censor information that is highly in support of, rather than opposed to, a domestic political leader. The only one explanation is that political leaders in China cannot be embarrassed.

But on the next day, all news related to Premier Wen’s speech gave a little hint. The syndicated news story said, “there was some disturbance in the middle of Premier Wen’s speech, but the troublemaker who conducted this mean act was condemned by all listeners in the auditorium.” Still, it left out key details, including that a shoe had been thrown.

Those in the know were so infuriated by the act and so eager to find an emotional outlet. Those in the dark were so tantalized by the vague words that they wanted to find out more. Therefore, it becomes recently the hottest topic, even though there was little controversy or debate during the discussion. I guess it took the government three days to finally realize it is impossible to cover the facts in this information age, which explains the third version of the same news on the following day: “Premier Wen disrupted by a shoe-throwing man; the British side apologized.”

As a supporter for Premier Wen, I felt angry with the shoe-throwing act. But as a journalist, I never think turning a deaf ear and keeping people in the dark is a right attitude or good strategy for a government when faced with discontent and criticism. Having to come clean after failing to cover up can only make a government look stupid and dishonest.

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