Love Across the Waters

The word is out. Taiwan's once regal legislature has fallen. Thousands of protesters swarmed around the lush capital of China's democracy. Students broke in. Police kept them out -- or tried. Crowds joined the crowds. The temple of freedom has been shattered.

Or has it?

Taiwanese balked at the new relationship between China and Taiwan, forged through trade, ramified through symbols. Policemen ripped off their uniforms and joined the crowd.

But what was really going on?

When I was a fledgling journalist, I once brought a visitor, a reporter from Congressional Quarterly, a seasoned veteran of legislative imbroglios, to observe the legislature in Taiwan. The legislature is housed in an old, decaying brick building once used by the Japanese for -- if I remember correctly -- a schoolhouse. But it was a pleasure to be a neophyte reporter during those heady days of democracy because all the action of the developing world was focused in that building. Fights, grandstanding, wrestling, tearing up of laws and showering the air with them, vows of silence with the speaker wearing duct tape over his mouth -- all manner of shows took place in that small space, that stage for a new world with strange notions of liberal democracy and human rights.

But nothing prepared us for what we witnessed that day, the day I brought the veteran from CQ with me into the arena. A bed, a hospital bed was rolled up beside us. On the bed, in a comatose state, lay a patient, an old man in a hospital gown with a look of grey agony etched across his brow. At his side, pushing the bed was obviously a relative.

The reporter from CQ inquired of me what was going on. I asked. They were there to protest a new health care law. The patient was indeed comatose -- victim of the old health system (or something like that -- the details escape me) -- his relative assured us. She was there to bring him in, as outright evidence of the failure of the old policies.

Aghast, we turned with an eye of pity on the forlorn stranger lying on the bed. Perhaps feeling our gaze upon him, he opened one eyelid carefully, took a quick wink at us, then shut it hastily. The whole thing was one giant sham! Even the CQ reporter, who thought he had seen it all, was flabbergasted.

It was what the Taiwanese called putting on a show. There is even a phrase for it in Chinese: "zuo xiu." It sounds something like: "Throw a show."

That was it. The patient and his relative were putting on a show.

Now, I don't want to decry the strong vehemence of the Taiwanese who have taken to the streets and stormed the legislature this week. There is no doubt the feelings of helplessness, agony, abandonment are real. But no real violence has taken place. There has been no massacring of protesters. In fact, all the police did was protect each other from getting hurt. President Ma hurled out one line to the opposition party that seemed at the epicenter of the revolt: "Obey the law."

Taiwan is working hard to preserve its sovereignty. Perhaps its many constituents are not as opposed to each other as may seem on the surface. Perhaps the entire storming of the legislature has been one giant "show." Whether or not the actors are entirely conscious of their parts, yet the machine that governs the society is still functioning.

The stage has now spread outside of the legislature. The entire island and its capital, it seems, are now one giant showcase for dissent, trouble and a single-mindedness of purpose: making a brouhaha, showing its giant neighbor to the east that protest is still viable, still alive.