Now China's premier gets flying shoe treatment

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Indy Politics

Wen Jiabo could have been forgiven for looking forward to his grand tour of Europe, culminating in a three-day visit to Britain.

The Chinese premier is under growing pressure in Beijing as even the biggest of the world's tiger economies suffers acute growing pains. Receiving the red-carpet treatment in the UK would have reminded detractors of his – and his homeland's – importance on the world stage.

Inviting Mr Wen to London also looked like a useful way for Gordon Brown to demonstrate his determination to build a global coalition for his plans to kick-start the world's economy.

It didn't quite turn out that way. Mr Wen arrives home today, having endured protests over his country's brutal repression of Tibet, ending with a demonstrator hurling a shoe at him at a lecture at Cambridge University.

Mr Brown, meanwhile, secured a promised boost to UK exports to China, but had to listen as his guest delivered a diatribe against Western governments for leading the world to economic disaster.

The final day of Mr Wen's visit began as his cavalcade swept by small groups of rival protesters opposite the gates of a snowy Downing Street for talks with the Prime Minister. He then headed to the Institute of Directors to meet businessmen keen to export to the world's most populous nation.

At a joint press conference at the Foreign Office, Mr Brown predicted British exports to China could double to £10bn over the next 18 months and forecast that the country's huge fiscal stimulus package would help drive the global economy out of recession.

Mr Brown even broke into Mandarin to wish him a happy Chinese New Year with the greeting: "Gong Xi Fa Chai". He also boasted that the two leaders shared a vision of bringing integrity to the financial markets and avoiding protectionism.

The Chinese leader responded by making it clear he did not want to be associated with the free market economics preached until last autumn by Britain and the US. He blamed the recession on economies with "an imbalance in their economic structure". Mr Wen said: "For a long period of time they have had fuel deficit, trade deficit and fiscal deficit and they have been overspending by borrowing. Now is not the time to give the full picture of the crisis and to have a serious reflection on the implications of the crisis. However, it does show how dangerous a totally unregulated market will be, can be. It brings disastrous consequences."

As Downing Street sought to play down the remarks, Mr Wen's British visit was coming to an unfortunate end at Cambridge, where he delivered a lecture to an audience of 400 students and staff. Organisers were convinced that it would pass off without incident as tight security was in place for the event. But 30 minutes into his speech Mr Wen was interrupted by a loud whistle from a student who then threw a shoe at him. The shoe fell short by several metres but the protester shouted: "How can the university prostitute itself with this dictator? How can you listen to the lies he's telling?" Several other members of the audience shouted back "Shut up", while another said, "You're being extremely rude". The student responded by saying: "Stand up and protest, you're not challenging him." He was then escorted out.

The protester's shoe-throwing is likely to have been inspired by the actions of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist. At a press conference last December in Baghdad, he threw both his shoes at George Bush.

Mr Wen said the protest was "despicable" and insisted it would not stand in the way of friendship between Britain and China. But diplomats in London and Beijing will today begin the task of smoothing the ruffled feathers on both sides following the visit.

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