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China and Taiwan: What cross-strait thaw?

Famous Taiwanese actress Vivian Hsu was reduced to tears — and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

China And Taiwan Vivian Hsu
Taiwanese actress Vivian Hsu was reduced to tears on Oct. 23 following an ugly quarrel between delegations from China and Taiwan at the 23rd International Tokyo Film Festival. Here, the actress is pictured on Dec. 6, 2008. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In terms of international news, it was barely a blip.

But an ugly quarrel between delegations from China and Taiwan at a recent Tokyo film festival was the type of petty spat that has long characterized interactions between the two sides of the strait on the global stage.

Such incidents help explain why most Taiwanese have a dim view of China's government, and no interest in unification.

They also show how far apart the two sides remain politically, despite a historic warming of economic relations.

It started innocently enough. A group of Taiwanese movie stars and starlets lined up to take a stroll down the "eco-friendly" green carpet at the 23rd International Tokyo Film Festival on Oct. 23. A group from China did the same.

Then the head of China's delegation, Jiang Ping, decided to make a scene. After apparently noting that Taiwan's delegation was participating under the name "Taiwan," he demanded that this moniker be switched to "Chinese Taipei" or "Taiwan, China."

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China and is hypersensitive to any suggestion on the world stage that the island is actually something else — namely, a de facto sovereign and independent state. For that reason, Taiwan is only allowed to participate in the Olympics and other global sporting events as "Chinese Taipei" due to the high-decibel pressure China puts on organizers.

The head of Taiwan's delegation refused his Chinese counterpart's request, saying "no concessions will be made this time around." Then, as cameras rolled, the two sides bickered.

"The Taiwan area delegation is a part of China's delegation," Jiang angrily told news cameras. At one point he gave Japanese organizers 10 minutes to accept his demands.

In the end, after more than two hours of heated discussions, neither delegation strolled the green carpet. China later withdrew from the event entirely after the Japanese hosts refused to enforce its demands.

But what really added news value in Taiwan were the waterworks from Taiwanese celebrity Vivian Hsu, one of the island's stars at the festival.

A news clip of the actress crying in Tokyo was played and replayed in Taiwan's frantic media. Hsu told reporters that one Taiwanese actor had "torn off his tie" after being told they couldn't walk the carpet. Hsu herself had bought a more than $6,500 Zac Posen-designed dress for the occasion, only to be stymied by the Chinese, media reported. The head of Taiwan's delegation said he felt as if his daughter's wedding had been ruined.

Soon the editorials poured forth and talk show discussions ensued. The island's internecine quarrels were put aside for a moment as politicians and commentators of all stripes lined up to condemn China's behavior and applaud Taiwan's delegation for standing up to China. The spat in Tokyo "proved to Taiwan's people that unification with China is absolutely not a good thing," wrote the Apple Daily. The presidential spokesman rebuked China, as did the premier, who said Jiang's behavior was "unreasonable and rude."

Such a strong reaction to a tiff at a minor event may seem puzzling to outsiders. But it speaks to the petty humiliation Taiwan routinely endures from China at international events — treatment that dredges up deeply emotional issues of identity and respect. While the rest of the world is just now getting to know a more assertive China, Taiwanese have long been familiar with Beijing's sterner face.

"We have to stand up to say we don't agree with that type of behavior," said George Tsai, a cross-strait relations expert at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. "We have our dignity and principles."