I don't think this was as well covered in the US media as Monday's snowstorm in the UK (really people? does the whole country need to fall apart over a few inches of snow?), but a strange thing happened in Cambridge on Monday. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was giving a speech here about the global economy after meeting with Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister. Toward the end of the talk, a heckler in the audience called Wen a "dictator" and threw his shoe at him. My knowledge of the Chinese government is pretty limited, but my understanding is that Wen is at the helm of the Chinese bureaucracy, while the President, Hu Jintao, is the head of state. Throwing shoes at government leaders, of course, has a history going back at least as far as... the month before last, when President Bush got the same treatment in Iraq.
I didn't manage to get a ticket to his talk, so I wasn't there to witness the event personally. It should go without saying that the incident reflects poorly on Cambridge as a place for a free and civilized exchange of ideas. What was most interesting to me, though, was seeing the reactions of my Chinese and non-Chinese classmates, primarily through the flurry of facebook commentary that followed. The general reaction among the non-Chinese students was bemusement, similar to the way I think most young Americans reacted to Bush's "shoeing." The act was violent but posed little real threat to the speaker; the primary source of the gesture's force is its breaching of the deferential treatment usually accorded to heads of government.
Chinese students reacted quite differently. Here is a passage from a comment written by a Chinese Development Studies classmate of mine: "Apparently, this lad is just one of the young people here who are ignorant about the history and reality of China, yet filled with blind ideologic passion. If you hate Communist Party, you have no idea how much the Party has evolved. If you love a free Tibet, you are ignorant about the brutal and ruthless theocratic regime of serfdom once ruled by Dailai [sic] Lama, the 'smiling budda.' If you hate China, yet you chose the wrong person to make this 'heroic' move, whom happens to be probably the most respected and beloved leader in China, across all age groups. It can only be viewd by Chinese as an insult and humiliation, which put shame on the guy himself, which I don't care, but also cast shadow on this great University." A Chinese friend of his remarked that it was "a shame to Cambridge." My friend later added: "I just reviewed the video and found that Wen made very sincere bows to the audience, saying 'this is not a courtesy. This is my due respect for knowledge, teachers and professors, as a humble student. ' What a shame for this scum showing up today, humiliating this great university."
I bolded certain words in those passages because I think they point to something very, very vital about Chinese and other East Asian cultures that a lot of Westerners fail to understand, to everyone's detriment. I wrote about the importance of avoiding shame and "losing face" in Filipino culture in my previous blog-- almost three years ago to the day, in fact. This economy of honor and shame is linked primarily with the self and one's family in the Philippines, but in China it's also very much tied up with national identity. So throwing a shoe at the Chinese premier is committing a certain kind of emotional warfare even against our Chinese friends. I seem to recall that a few years back, early in Hu Jintao's presidency, the White House declined to host a full-fledged state dinner when Hu came to visit Washington and a lot of Chinese people regarded it as a deep insult. I'm not saying that Westerners always and everywhere need to do whatever it takes to avoid hurting China's pride, but we've got to start understanding this stuff better, especially as China continues its climb as a world power.
I have found many of my own preconceived notions about my Chinese friends to be wrong. Recently one of our professors lectured on development and the media, and naturally media censorship in China was a topic of discussion. I think I had been expecting, or perhaps wishing, that I was attending class with some young Chinese Patrick Henrys or Tom Paines. That turned out not to be the case. While not necessarily endorsing the current state-run media, they presented a nuanced view of government control that gave nods to stability and gradualism. I was similarly surprised when a Vietnamese friend (again 3 years ago this month) expressed some gratitude that the communist government there keeps a lid on things, while the democratic Philippines has been rent with political unrest and violence. I realized that in my ideology I might have more in common with the George W. Bush of his second inaugural address than I care to admit.