In Rare Candor, China Reports Shoe Throwing

Chinese media reported in some detail on the protester who threw his shoe at Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at Cambridge University. In the past, the media might have maintained silence on this unseemly and potentially embarrassing incident.

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Remember the Iraqi journalist who took off his shoes one-by-one and hurled them at President Bush at a news conference in Baghdad? Well, it looks like he's created a new global form of political protest. The head of China's government was the latest target of flying footwear. It happened yesterday during a speech at the University of Cambridge in England. What is surprising is how China's media handled the incident.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Beijing took that shoe and spun it.

ANTHONY KUHN: Premier Wen Jiabao was most of the way through the Rede Lecture, a 500-year-old tradition at Cambridge. He assured the audience that China's growing power threatens no one. Premier Wen paused, as a young Caucasian man in the back of the audience stood up and blew a whistle.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: How can this university prostitute itself with this dictator? the man yelled. How can you listen to the lies he is telling?

(Soundbite of commotion)

KUHN: Shame on you, said some in the audience, which included many Chinese students.

Premier WEN JIABAO (China): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Teachers, Wen began again - he looked to the right as the black sneaker, hurled by the protester, thudded on to the stage several feet from his lectern. The protester was hustled away by university security and is due to face charges next week of disturbing public order. With the exception of one tabloid's web site, Chinese media made no mention of the shoe until Tuesday, when it got four minutes on the 7:00 evening news, watched by an estimated 500 million viewers.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2 (Anchor): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The report focused on Wen's unruffled response.

Premier WEN: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

KUHN: Teachers and students, he said, this despicable move cannot obstruct the friendship of the Chinese and British people.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2 (Anchor): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The report noted a message from the university's vice chancellor expressing regret for the incident, and stressing that Cambridge is a place for considered argument and debate, not for shoe throwing. One Chinese reader wrote approvingly on the Web site of the British newspapers, The Times: Our Prime Minister stood still and acted properly.

Media scholar Yu Guoming at People's University in Beijing says that a news report such as tonight's is unprecedented. He says it suggests a more self-confident Beijing and one that has learned a basic rule of public relations.

Professor YU GUOMING: (People's University, Beijing): (Through translator) In the past, the Communist Party's propaganda department understanding was that bad news produces bad effects. But events in the past year, particularly those surrounding the Olympics, helped them to understand that this isn't always the case.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Some of last year's bad news, such as protesters' disruptions of the Olympic torch relay, rallied many Chinese to defend their government. Yu also notes that Beijing has introduced some limited moves towards transparency, including a Freedom of Information Act. Beijing may not allow its media to report on every such incident in future, says Yu Guoming, but it will have to face a clear trend. As the Internet continues to erode its monopoly over information, the public is increasingly fed up with government censorship.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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