If the shoe fits ...

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am

China's leadership is emulating, and striving to surpass, the United States. From sending rockets into space, to excessive conspicuous consumption and even energy wastage, China is racing against America in everything. There are even replica White House residences available for China's new rich, all the way from Beijing across to Xishuangbanna prefecture.

China can now tick off one more box on that list. On February 2, Premier Wen Jiabao became the second world leader to have a shoe thrown at him. To date, only former US president George W. Bush has been a shoe target, although Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Benny Dagan, also dodged a flying shoe while speaking at Stockholm University on February 4.

Mr Wen was speaking at Cambridge University when a protester hurled a shoe at him, shouting 'how can the university prostitute itself with this dictator?' before being hauled away. Chinese in the audience called the act 'disgraceful'.

But is this shoe throwing all antics or should we be looking at some deeper messages being hurled with the footwear? What message should China pick up?

Whether it realises it or not, China is at a difficult crossroads in its relations with the west, and this will only grow more complicated in the coming months as nations, strained by the global financial crisis, look to blame others.

China has massive foreign-exchange reserves and trade surpluses, but adheres to draconian controls over the media and people's beliefs. From the perspective of the western media and politicians, this is a deadly combination. Amid the global downturn, China will become a target of wrath, as did its premier.

The Cambridge incident, intentionally or otherwise, connects China's policies with those of Mr Bush's neoconservative administration.

The Bush administration's brand of fundamentalist capitalism saw greed as the underlying driver of Adam Smith's invisible hand that would always equalise markets. Western economists diplomatically label China's model as 'Dickensian capitalism'. Others liken it more to 'neoconservative economics'.

Mr Bush's 'war on terror' gave China and many other countries the ultimate mandate to extend their own security apparatus. The 'terrorist' label was a blank cheque to 'strike hard' against activists. America's Guantanamo Bay and CIA torture chambers in third countries, where human rights laws either don't exist or don't apply, gave China absolute freedom to deal with activists in its own legal void, knowing full well that America could say and do nothing.

Now, Americans have rejected the neoconservative doctrine by electing Barack Obama president. Global values have shifted in due course, reflecting this detestation of eight years of Mr Bush's 'strike hard' policies.

This means that China will need to manage its own public image differently from now on, because the global media will shift its tone to that of the new US administration.

For China, a lot of image management will be required to first understand, and then play, the media and human rights game amid global mood swings.

Change in the White House will change America's global relations by reinstating a set of principles that had been twisted and misused by the Bush administration.

China's leaders may have yet to fully appreciate the significance of this change, and the symbolism of the shoe. When they do, it may affect China's approach to the world.

The international community will be watching China's policies on ethnic minorities and religious freedom, as well as how it manages rising nationalism during the economic downturn.

It is important that leaders in Beijing avoid fixed thinking and instead grasp the mood of global change. China should learn from Mr Bush's mistakes, lest it become the target of more shoes.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala