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With Rare Candor, China Airs Shoe Throwing

It hesitated for hours over the sensitive footage of a protester in Britain shouting "dictator" and throwing a shoe at Premier Wen Jiabao. But finally, China's carefully controlled state broadcaster ran it Tuesday.

The move was a remarkable display of openness - but the footage already was leaking into China via satellite television and the Internet. Critics said it showed the increasing power of such media to erode strict information controls.

"It is impossible for a country to shut out a piece of news," said Shao Peiren, head of Zhejiang University's communications research institute in eastern China.

The broadcast might also help the government by appealing to Chinese patriotism. Wen is the leadership's most popular figure, and he emerged as the hero after last year's devastating earthquake, calling himself "Grandpa Wen." The nickname was embraced by some enthusiastic Chinese.

Still, incidents that could be seen as unflattering or insulting to the Chinese leadership have long been treated with the greatest sensitivity. The first Chinese reports on the protest during Wen's visit to Britain's Cambridge University left out key details, including that a shoe had been thrown.

But the China Central Television broadcast had it all. The evening news showed the footage among the first stories of its half-hour broadcast, leading into it with a report on Wen's speech itself and his return to Beijing.

Then the shoe-throwing footage was shown, with no commentary from the anchors, just a simple news setup.

The camera was fixed on Wen, but later cut to the whistle-blowing protester being removed from the hall, while the audience shouted "Get out."

"How can this university prostitute itself with this dictator here? How can you listen ... to him unchallenged?" the man - who has yet to be identified - could be heard shouting.

The sound of the shoe hitting the stage, away from Wen, could be heard as well.

Wen paused for about one minute and then continued his speech.

"Teachers and students, this kind of dirty trick cannot stop the friendship between the Chinese and the British people," Wen said, followed by applause.

The incident echoed the news conference in December in which an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush - covered widely not only in China but around the world.

Bush joked off his shoe attack, saying "it was a size 10," but China's response was far sterner.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called the disruption "despicable" but said it would not "stem the tide of friendly relations between China and Britain."

Internet chat rooms were filled with patriotic messages denouncing the protester, who did not appear to be ethnic Han Chinese.

"The uncompromising Iraqi people threw a shoe at Bush which is a brave act by a suppressed nation," said one comment on the bulletin board. "But the ugly Englishman threw a shoe at Wen, which was only a barbaric trick."

In an apparent move to show national dignity had been maintained, reports by CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency included prominent references to Britain apologizing.

The BBC reported the 27-year-old protester would appear before magistrates on Feb. 10 in Cambridge on charges of committing a public order offense.

China's online activity - with 298 million Web users - makes it increasingly tough for censors to keep sensitive news, like the shoe throwing, offline. Media watchers say that may be prompting official media to report on other news it would have suppressed before, such as riots and protests.

But the expanded coverage may also reflect a recognition by propaganda authorities that showing such events can work to the government's advantage.

Two incidents last year were given wide state media coverage: Attacks on the Olympic torch overseas before its journey to Beijing, and the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.

The torch attacks sparked an outpouring of angry nationalism among Chinese at home and abroad. The second brought a wave of compassion and assistance for the quake victims.

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