Editorial: A bitter `status quo' symphony

Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 8

I am here in my mold/But I'm a million different people from one day to the next/I can't change my mold.

To better understand the phantasm that is the cross-strait "status quo," one need only consider these lyrics from Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve. The term "status quo" is used so often, so unquestioningly, and means different things to so many people, that it is surprising few subject its reification to critical scrutiny.

"Status quo" can be defined as "no change" or "maintaining the current situation." But this is not what is taking place in the Taiwan Strait. Thus, the different conceptions of "status quo" are like melodies, sometimes in harmony, but increasingly not.

To the Democratic Progressive Party government, the status quo is a rhetorical weapon to justify hardening cross-strait policy, comforted in the knowledge that time is China's enemy, and that an impatient Beijing must place more pressure on Taipei. To the DPP, this vindicates warnings of ill will from China, and Beijing's inability to abide by the status quo.

To Washington, or at least that part of Washington that backs Taiwan, the status quo is a fire blanket that keeps the parties underneath from combusting. One day, it is hoped, the parties will have cooled sufficiently for Washington to lift the blanket and peek inside, where it will witness a democratizing China that has abandoned militant feelings and can co-exist with the lone superpower.

To China, the status quo prevents Taipei acting unilaterally until such time that the signal is given and Beijing can act according to its own agenda. In the meantime, China can dot its coastline with as many missiles and troops as it wants. In other times and places, such arming of a frontier would precipitate and probably justify a pre-emptive attack by the threatened party. But in China's case, saying "status quo" frequently enough is an opiate -- this time for foreign consumption -- that lulls other starry-eyed states into a preposterous sense of security.

To Chairman Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the status quo has become a campaign slogan that protects it from committing to any course of action in regard to unification. Status quo means supporting self-determination and unification; it means paying homage to criminals like Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and honoring the people he persecuted and killed. It means prevaricating on the international stage while convincing rival KMT factions that Ma can win over the electorate in 2008.

And to the Taiwanese public? Ever pragmatic, the status quo is code for "We're more interested in making a living than ideology and starting fights. Let's worry about this later." Yet deep inside there is an awareness that pragmatism will only work as long as space for it exists, and that constriction of space from every direction will lead to a day of reckoning.

These different conceptions thread in and out of each other in a rambling counterpoint that serves to confuse and numb through repetition until the expression is left flailing as a mantra, a three-syllable nonsense invoked to comfort without recourse to content. It is a cypher, and like The Verve's Richard Ashcroft in the video for Bittersweet Symphony, it marches forward, barely responsive to what is happening around it, unconscious of the pain and anger of the people it offends. But when a large vehicle appears and is big enough to block its path, it stops, looking vacantly inside as if it could negotiate.

The "status quo" is viable because of a balance of forces from different directions. Some of these are unpredictable and growing weaker. The critical question, therefore, is not how to keep the "status quo" alive, but rather how and when it will fall apart and how prepared this government and the population will be at that very moment to defend themselves against a storm of Chinese sociopathy.