A while back I released the album Views from Chicheng Precipice, a sort of audio counterpart to my Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City, both being end results of my experiences within Chinese culture. Hoping that Chinese listeners might take interest in my unorthodox adaptations of traditional Chinese music, I decided to prepare promotional materials in both English and Chinese. A friend suggested a translator he knew, a bright young Chinese woman who worked at Beijing Radio, who graciously agreed to take on the task.
A few days later she wrote to inform me that there was a “problem” with the materials I’d sent her. I had mentioned my recently published book in my artist bio, and the problem, she disclosed, was its subtitle, “Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan.” She apologetically told me that this would never fly in the People’s Republic, which insists that the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan is an inviolable part of “One China,” and that simply saying China and Taiwan was tantamount to recognizing the latter’s independence.
While in retrospect my usage was obviously controversial, I thought nothing of it at the time, simply because it seemed self-evident to someone who’d lived on both sides of the Formosa Strait that, since embarking on radically different courses in the 1940s, the two polities had evolved into very different cultures. Leaving aside the island’s aboriginal inhabitants, the Taiwanese are undeniably rooted in the greater Chinese culture, but 50 years of Japanese rule, decades of diplomatic isolation, and the experience of dwelling in a democratic rather than communist society all contributed to forging a unique culture. It was my hope, and I believe the hope of most Taiwanese, that one day their island nation will be truly independent, not a mere appendage of the bloated PRC. But if that day were ever to come, it would be achieved not through open conflict but through patient, gradual change.
Enter the man with the reverse Midas touch, Donald Trump, who with one stunningly reckless telephone call threatens to upset the precarious balance between Taiwan and its behemoth neighbor that has endured, if shakily, for more than 60 years. Even tacitly suggesting the possibility of Taiwanese independence is the third rail of the already fraught relationship between the world’s two biggest economic powerhouses and standing armies; every U.S. diplomat knows this, and the Taiwanese live it. While Taiwan’s independence-leaning president, Tsai Ing-wen, was complicit in being party to the call, it was later revealed that she had specifically requested that it not be reported, a confidence the President-Erect cavalierly betrayed in a series of typically juvenile braggadocio tweets. That Trump would risk everything up to global military conflict just to show us what a tough guy he is tells us all we need to know about the so-called leader of the free world’s (lack of) character. And no, opposing his latest WTF maneuver is not equivalent to supporting China’s dubious claims of overlordship, as some have suggested.
Some in Taiwan are apparently taking Trump’s indiscretion as a positive indication, a supposed reaffirmation of Washington’s commitment to defend the island from its menacing mainland neighbor. Yet it would be folly for Taiwan to place its faith in the U.S. – the same country that not so long ago sold the island down the river by withdrawing diplomatic recognition in 1979 – in the event of any military invasion by China. Ain’t going to happen, folks; sure, sabers will be rattled and a few warships deployed for show, but the U.S. will never go full frontal against a nuclear power that owns our national debt and is more than 20 times the size of a certain small Southeast Asian nation we were unable to bomb into submission in the 1960s and ‘70s. Or is this self-obsessed adolescent really that deranged after all? One thing we do know: The man loves to make a mess – and leave it for others to clean up.