For a few days following the incident at Cambridge University in which a young German protestor threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa, the small thread of the web that originates from my house erupted in a stream of bilingual bursts. The incident proved to be of natural interest to my Chinese expatriate co-editor and her blogging friends, some of whom also live or have spent time in the United Kingdom. Their conversation mostly focused on whether Wen, speaking off-the-cuff after the shoe had been thrown, actually meant to describe the incident as “despicable” or whether it had been mistranslated and he had in fact intended something less forceful such as “mean” or “inappropriate”. To me, their conversation was intriguing: partly because Chinese-Western relations is a topic ripe for speculation, and partly because I am fascinated by translation, an art for which I have the highest respect and absolutely no natural ability. (I remain in constant awe of my co-editor’s ability to function in three languages more adeptly than I can function in one.)
I am not sure if they ever came to a decision. In some sense it did not matter. The audience at the event, much of it Chinese, seemed to consider Wen’s reaction appropriate for such an obvious sign of disrespect. And as for everybody else, by the time my co-editor and her friends began translating the translation, “despicable” had already been set in the English record. For some who later saw the video, it seemed a strident response for what had actually occurred, the typical overstatement of a mainland leader unused to reacting to public criticism. (Wen’s later call for leniency proved to be a much more adept piece of public relations.) In comparison to the Bush press conference, in which the assailant managed to get off two shoes in quick succession and right on target, the Cambridge protestor’s efforts were decidedly lackluster, his missile falling harmlessly a few wide of the target. Likewise, if he had been hoping to have his gesture repeated endlessly as infectious viral video, the results were also less than stellar. With most of the action falling off screen, it certainly lacked the drama of a ducking Bush.
But even if anticlimactic and poorly executed, a shoe thrown at a world leader, especially one of Wen’s stature, is an event that demands attention. In Britain, there were the predictable denunciations and apologies necessary to quell a diplomatic incident. In China, the story, after initially being held back by the censors, was released to predictable sentiment. It was not hard for Chinese nationalists (and they sort of had a point) to interpret the incident as another sign of Western disrespect for China. That the shoe was thrown at Wen certainly didn’t help matters. In recent years, the premier has successfully nurtured an image of himself as the nation’s benevolent grandfather. A few minutes spent looking through Chinese comments online, at least those I could read, revealed a common feeling: Who could throw a shoe at grandpa Wen? A German protester whose political aim was as bad as his arm, as it turns out. But never mind the political fallout — the shoe thrower’s goal, whatever it may have been, was certainly not to win converts in the Middle Kingdom. And even if it were, extreme Chinese nationalists were not going to be convinced by his means of expression.
Sometimes there is a fine line between the personal and the political. This it turns out was one of those cases, as the incident found reflection in my own relationship with my co-editor. My reaction to the event, if not quite that of the shoe thrower, was at least to see Wen’s retort as typically stiff and tone deaf. Then again, I am inclined to be weary of the Chinese leadership generally and I am completely deaf in all four Putonghua tones, so perhaps I am not the most impartial or accurate judge of these matters. The feelings of my co-editor on the other hand, while not jingoistic, certainly echoed the sentiment I had encountered online: that it was completely unacceptable, and vaguely mystifying, that someone had thrown a shoe at Grandpa Wen. Indeed, there is no topic of discussion, at least of a non-personal nature, more likely to cause tension between my co-editor and myself than Chinese politics. On more than one occasion, I have found myself reacting to a relatively innocuous comment about the country with an uncalled for, and only half-believed, tirade on human’s rights, environmental degradation, Tibet, etc., etc. (Strangely, when speaking to my fellow Canadians, I often find myself defending the Middle Kingdom with lectures about the hypocritical West.) Conversely, my co-editor often personalises (sometimes surprisingly so for an Anglophile Hong Konger) even mild criticism of China, reacting with party one-liners and nationalists sentiments. No matter how such a conversation begins — I think once it was over whether we should have pasta or chow mien — the result is always the same. The overstated feelings of one will annoy the other, leading to a positive feedback loop of more strident views and less actual communication. Fortunately my co-editor normally has the common sense to say “Why are we fighting over noodles?” before these debates escalate to the point of actual shoe throwing.
Of course, the issues at stake in China’s rise are infinitely more serious and complicated than what my co-editor and I should have for dinner, a fact which I find troubling. If two people who live together, aren’t really that political and are comfortable with each other’s cultures can get so worked up about Chinese-Western relations, what hope is there that the West and China will be able to work together. Now admittedly, you don’t have to have read too deeply in psychology to know that many household fights about current affairs are as much about personal issues as they are about political ones. But I think there is more to our quarrels than displaced domestic tensions; there are also inherent cultural differences. And if we can’t always manage these differences, how will political leaders, faced with protestors and cyber-nationalists, overcome them in a world of tightening resources and global warming. What if the shoe had been on target? What happens when the other one drops?
Then again, I saw another image during Wen’s visit to England, one infinitely more striking than that of an off-target shoe. It showed a young Caucasian boy holding a sign written in Chinese that read “Happy Chinese New Year, Grandpa Wen.” Maybe not all Westerners are tone deaf and find Chinese leaders stiff after all.
Jeff Zroback / Co-editor
18 February, 2009