09 February 2009
Better Shoes than Bullets
The Chinese premier's appeal for clemency for the Cambridge University student who threw a shoe at him earlier this month gives me a belated opportunity to comment on the incident. Martin Jahnke is, to my knowledge, the first person to emulate the brave Iraqi who similarly treated our former President. As a German studying in Britain, Jahnke can't claim any injury at the hands of China or Wen Jiabao personally, but reports state that Jahnke regarded Wen as a bloodstained dictator unworthy of being the university's guest. That people perceive the People's Republic as a tyranny is understandable, but I doubt, at the country's current stage of development, that Wen can be seen as a dictator on the model of Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, the country still represses many forms of dissent (though not as many, I suspect, as Western critics claim) and oppresses Tibet. Many people are going to see a Chinese leader as a villain and probably a worse one than George W. Bush, at least if how you treat your own people counts for more than how you treat other countries. It was Jahnke's prerogative to throw the shoe, and it was brave of him, since he could have no idea beforehand how either the college or the Chinese would react. As it turns out, Wen has gotten over his early irritation and now emulates Bush by playing the good sport about the whole thing. The statement issued by the Chinese government hints that this show of magnanimity (which may well influence the school authorities who'll actually decide Jahnke's future) will lead the lad to rethink his opinion of China. That may be asking too much, but since I expected the Chinese to demand that Jahnke be jailed, it's a PR point in China's favor. It shows that they're learning that dissent isn't always a threat. They might learn by extension that many acts of dissent by their own people are really just as harmless as Jahnke's shoe -- or that the easiest way to render them harmless is to treat them as such. The real test would come if a Chinese person tried the same stunt -- or for that matter, if a Briton tossed a pair at Prime Minister Brown, or a German did it to Angela Merkle. We encourage further experimentation.