Sound and fury of Taiwanese opera

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 December, 2003, 12:00am

Verbal broadsides across the Taiwan Strait in the run-up to the vote to amend the constitution to allow a referendum, initiated by President Chen Shui-bian, had all the melodrama and acrobatics of a classic Peking Opera performance. While the 'monkey king was making havoc in heaven', everyone backstage and in the centre aisle knew what Mr Chen was up to, and, of course, what the outcome would be - even before the performance began.

High-pitched cross-strait arias between Beijing and Taipei, accompanied by pounding drums from Washington, have become honed to perfection, playing to seasonal audiences, depending on whether it is election year in Taiwan or America.

This season's performance opened on November 12, when Li Weiyi, spokesman for the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, said: 'Chen Shui-bian is not concerned with the peaceful wishes of Taiwan people. Moreover, he is forcing the sons and daughters of China to be prepared for independence action.'

On November 18, the State Council's vice-director, Wang Daixi, warned that any possible referendum on constitutional amendments was 'extremely dangerous behaviour', saying that 'Taiwan independence is the bottom line', and adding 'we do not want to face our compatriots with guns and knives'. In a rare move, China's foreign ministry in Beijing summoned key foreign ambassadors to relay a sombre message: 'We are willing to face the challenge.'

On November 20 in Washington, Randy Schriver, the US deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, clarified America's position: 'We do not support independence. So, if any of these efforts touch on Taiwan's status in a way that leads us in that direction, we're not going to be supportive of it.'

In Beijing, meanwhile, Premier Wen Jiabao was telling The Washington Post: 'America should try its best to halt Taiwan's referendum. Moreover, Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the motherland's unity.'

Mr Wen insisted that the US must be crystal clear in opposing the use of a referendum, amending the constitution, or any other practice adopted by Mr Chen in pursuing a separatist agenda. 'We completely understand the desire of Taiwan compatriots for democracy and peace,' he said, but warned that separatism was something that 'no Chinese citizen will agree with'. Mr Wen added: 'We hope that the US will take measures which are conducive to the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait ... and be conducive to the progress of negotiations.'

Back in Washington, Mr Schriver explained to a largely Taiwanese media that 'the economics sort of defines the status quo ... there are remaining differences between two sides. They are being managed peacefully. The rhetoric is up right now, particularly on the [mainland] side, but it's being managed peacefully, and our job is to make sure that the peaceful situation is sustained, and that we get to a point where the two sides can have dialogue to ultimately resolve these differences'.

Mr Schriver was right. Economics defines the status quo. Taiwan's capital is pouring into the mainland, relocating its low-tech industrial base, while shifting its industrial structure towards export of electronics and information technology components. The mainland overtook the US this year as Taiwan's largest export market. China has become the world's second-largest information hardware producer. The mainland-US-Taiwan trade triangle is becoming known as the 'US-IT global supply chain'.

For regular opera fans, the virtually identical performances in Beijing and Washington underscored this. Sure enough, when Taiwan politicians voted, they excluded from the referendum agenda sensitive items, such as changing the island's name, flag, anthem, boundary lines and sovereignty, and rewriting the constitution - while leaving just enough space for future acts, should political performances so require.

In Farewell My Concubine, his majesty's mistress wails that the 'dukes have rebelled and all routes are blocked', adding softly that his majesty should not fret, but rather 'sit in the tent and drink wine'. With a flourish of her sword, the concubine then slits her throat, without even smudging her make-up.

As the audience feigns hysteria and awe, they are really just amused, - knowing, all too well, how the story ends. With so much money being made from cross-strait trade and investment, nobody would really do a thing like that these days.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing