By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
What’s in a name?
“People’s” is the difference between China and Taiwan’s official name. The official name for China is the People’s Republic of China, and the official name for Taiwan is Republic of China.
If you omit “People’s” when addressing China, it could lead to protest, mistrust, and controversy. It’s a small detail, but it will enrage China instantly to be confused with Taiwan. In diplomacy, it could evoke an international crisis if the other side doesn’t formally apologize. Would it surprise you that President Trump’s administration recently made the slip on the official name of China? I have never heard past U.S. administrations make those errors.
Trump’s team slip
There should be no margin for error when officials address other countries — it’s a sign of respect and knowledge of the world. Government officials should use formal names when addressing other countries.
However, Trump’s folks did screw up at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, when a White House transcript released on Saturday of President Trump’s remarks, stated that President Xi Jinping is the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s formal name). Oops, I can imagine Chinese officials’ facial expressions when they read the message. Xi is the president of the People’s Republic of China. That slip is unforgivable, and China would probably see that as a slight. Whoever did that should be fired.
The Chinese side immediately raised the issue and the United States apologized. Both Taiwan and China are sensitive and angry towards countries referring to their names incorrectly. Ironically, Taiwan is more used to not being called Republic of China. They want to distinguish themselves from China. Hence, the term Taiwanese appears on the U.S. Census form; and Taipei, Taiwan as the official name in the Olympics.
Why the mistake?
In protocols and international relations, Trump’s administration is far from professional. (Just look at the mess his son Donald Trump Jr. created in the Russian scandal before the election. He didn’t even know that getting a foreign country’s help in an election is a violation of U.S. law. How could they be so ignorant, naïve, and stupid?)
If only Trump understands the importance of hiring experienced and competent diplomats. The trouble is, Trump wants to hire only loyalists who neither possess the knowledge, experience, or skills on the international stage.
Obviously, Trump’s people are still green when it comes to China-Taiwan relations, and China itself. Trump definitely doesn’t know how to handle China. Trump thought Xi would listen to him to stall North Korea’s missile test. Whatever he told Xi was totally useless and ineffective.
How many blunders did Trump’s folks make at the G-20 meeting? Countless. For instance, his staff couldn’t recognize some of the leaders, mixing up one leader for another. I imagine a circus at the G-20 meeting for Trump’s group. Shouldn’t they be much more prepared by now? The learning curve for Trump and his team is steep. The trouble is, Trump is too lazy to learn and has a short attention span. How do you expect his people to learn if they don’t have a good role model to follow?
Trump needs to stop running the government like a business. In business, you can get away with mistakes, including using the wrong names and processes. You could start over, and it will be forgotten quickly, and no ill-will be spread. That’s not how diplomacy works. In today’s complex world, anything that happens, no matter how small, could be perceived as a nasty act. It will destroy any window of opportunity for bilateral cooperation among countries. And you might have to wait a long time for the next opportunity to come up.
Some might consider the recent slip by Trump as minor. What I don’t get is, why do people keep making excuses for him?
The Chinese community
The Chinese community has made the same embarrassing mistake as recently as this year. Frequently, masters of ceremonies mixed up the official names of China and Taiwan — in both English and Chinese.
Lately, it’s getting better. The emcees get only the English name wrong, and but correct in Chinese. The official Chinese name for China has four more characters than Taiwan’s. The bad thing is, they didn’t even realizing they were making a mistake.
When I brought this up at one event, the organizer responded, “I doubt if anybody really listened.” Really? Nobody?
But several non-Chinese guests, especially elected officials who were present at the dinner, heard it loud and clear. Whether we like it or not, the mistake is a reflection on the Chinese community. Would they laugh at the Chinese community? I wonder. Would they perceive us as careless and ignorant like Team Trump?
The Chinese audience may not have heard the emcees announcing inaccurate names on China! But I did. Were they too busy chatting among themselves? Or maybe they couldn’t care less?
Is this attitude of fostering mistakes acceptable? What message are we sending to the younger generation? Or do Chinese members want “alternative” facts like Team Trump?
They were lucky that no Chinese or Taiwan officials were present at these events. Otherwise, the officials would have walked out in protest. In the past, officials would also protest if they didn’t get to sit at the head table. Or if their flag wasn’t placed in the room. Or if they didn’t get introduced first. Now, if one side knows the other side is coming, the other wouldn’t show up. Plus if they speak, who should speak first?
It’s getting to the point that some hosts don’t want to go through the trouble of inviting either Chinese or Taiwan officials, or they invite one side only.
If a community wants only compliments and disregards criticism, that community would never be strong.
Okay, I know this blog is not going to make either China or Taiwan happy, nor Trump or the Chinese community. But I am not a fake news teller, just a truth writer!!! We have made our share of mistakes on names, I admit. And we want you to inform us and point it out because we need to be held accountable.
That’s why I love the internet. There’s no limit to how many times we can rewrite or make corrections till we get it right.
I learned my lesson about the importance of names in my first journalism class in 1973, at the University of Washington. A professor would simply give us an E if we got the names of the sources wrong. It didn’t matter how great the story was. He wouldn’t read it, he just wrote a big E on top of the page. That E broke my heart into pieces whenever I got my assignments back. Now, I appreciate his tough love. That’s my motive for this blog — I did it out of love for this country and the Chinese community.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.