Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Wen in Europe...

...does as Western politicians do.

Shock and amusement have followed in equal measure following in the wake of a shoe-throwing incident - in which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was attacked by a potentially lethal object/almost forced to sniff the odour of a middle-class university undergraduate's footwear during a speech to an invited list of students at Cambridge University.

It is similar to the incident involving outgoing US President Bush where he had a shoe thrown at him during a recent press conference in Iraq, and taken together this perhaps marks a new shift in political protest (several years ago paint was the protest of choice, before cream cakes became flavour of the month, while recent evolution has seen a move to eggs and flour, suggesting the protesters ideas have got more half-baked with time...). It's possible to conjecture that their inspiration comes from Khruschev at the UN.

The event marked an enlivening interlude in Premier Wen's 'trip of confidence' to western Europe which has seen him lead the Chinese delegation sent to the World Economic Forum at Davos, a visit to the EU headquarters in Brussels, as well as Germany and Spain, before spending three days in Britain.

It is perhaps informative that Premier Wen ("Less irascible and blunt than his hard-driving predecessor") seemed relaxed and unflustered by the attack, while (or maybe because) the heavy presence of security guards in his entourage attempted to block any pictures of the incident. My impression however, was that Mr Wen was more dignified - if less swift - than George Bush in his reaction (though the shoe in question appeared to pass further from its target, while also being made of rubber on this occasion) .

It is also reported that the shoe-thrower has since been charged. Protocol would appear to demand this, though it seems unlikely that any information on the exact nature of the offense will be released until the visit is over for fear of derailing the more serious practical discussions. So expect an insignificant charge to be dropped or dismissed at a latter date when the fuss dies down, or at worst a slight fine as punishment received (which would in any event most likely be paid by wealthier interests).

It is all part of the merry dance of democratic expression, typified by undiplomatic behaviour by bystanders trying to muscle in on the serious action.


The principle objective of the trip was diplomatic and economic, with the Premier visiting expatriate communities (such as in London's Chinatown) during specially extended Chinese New Year festivities.

The political focus however has not been on the protests regarding Tibet, the environment or the continuing abuse of human rights, as the economic downturn is now dominating attention across the globe.

While in the UK deals spending of China's $400bn financial stimulus package was discussed with expectations that it will cover deals for British companies in areas like aerospace and pharmaceuticals, though Gordon Brown's expressed ambition for trade between the two partners to double from $5bn per year currently to £10bn by 2010 suggests that he didn't secure a particularly large slice of the pie.

China may still be experiencing high official growth levels of around 7%, but the slowdown is taking hold even as the boom continues. While western consumption of mass-produced Chinese goods falls factories in the eastern superpower have been closing and there are reports of as many as 20m people could find themselves without work upon their return from the New Year holidays spent with family in the interior.

Internal migration is a big component part of the Chinese economy with an annual influx to the coastal cities of 5-6m additional workers from rural areas, but unemployment casts a historical spectre among a nation where hard work is valued highly (some would say excessively so and to the detriment of other virtues). Yet much of China's competitiveness is based on looser control of companies, many which pay scant regard to environmental concerns, local communities and the workers themselves. So when a downturn hits there is little protection from criticism for the political classes.

Minor disturbances as well as major demonstrations are a common sight in the country, with an estimated 510,000 protests (in 2006 alone) away from the spotlight of central showpeice arenas like Tiananmen Square or the Birdsnest Olympic Stadium - explaining why they go largely unreported. But this is beginning to change as the the internet has given citizens the ability to communicate directly on a much wider scale than before without official intermediaries.

Memory of the 20th Century civil war and revolutions still plays it's part in how reactions are interpreted and a breakdown in law and order on the streets remains closely related with disintegration of central authority and administration, but political action is an eternal human desire and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

So issues of censorship in China are extremely relevant. Reportage often lends a different and insightful perspective on current events, identifying and explaining the causes of potential problems - maybe a weakening Chinese economy will encourage introduction of the liberal safeguards to check and balance the current system in order to prevent total collapse when the country comes under greater strain in the future.

Our political leaders need to proactively move for beneficial reforms as the only sensible precaution against the worst that can be imagined because where calamities are concerned it isn't a case of if, but when.


I think this trip has allowed Premier Wen to show a slightly more human face to the west. Though respect and honour are highly regarded attributes, this can have the effect of distancing individuals when higher levels of engagement are needed to more firmly establish trust between partners in an interdependent world. The economic plans show that China recognises the challenges present, but now the leaderhip needs to show it is representative of the people by demonstrating a bit more of an empathetic connection.


James Reynolds has a list of interview questions for Premier Wen.

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