TOM PLATE WRITES — According to newspaper reports, on arrival in Washington Mr Qin Gang’s public tone seemed sort of chipper; and further, in the wake of his initial greet-and-meet with US officials, there surfaced simmering new communications between the US and China. Given the alarm with which many westerners have been reacting to Beijing’s self-promoted ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, Mr. Qin was thus presented as if he’d been shot out of some Chinese Peace and Reconciliation Commission. And this is the People’s Republic of China’s new ambassador to Washington.
The backdrop is that any sort of apparent uptick in the bilateral relationship is rare enough that some of us understandably try to make a positive out of whatever we reasonably can. And so it hit a lot of people that the initial utterances out of the official mouth of China’s newly arrived ambassador Qin Gang were not – well – dreadful or ominous. And that’s fine: But the hitch is that his predecessor Mr Cui Tiankai, China’s man in Washington since 2013, had over the years made many friends for China with his warm style and considerable knowledge of America. If anything, the new ambassador, formerly a blunt-speaking foreign ministry official in Beijing, was more wolf warrior than cuddly panda.
Euphoria, in global as well as local politics, is more often than not unwarranted, or at best premature. Consider the current dreary reality: The Chinese economic dragon is starting to drag, and the American economy is looking decreasingly exceptional with almost every new statistical report. Malaise, the immensely depressing word once masochistically employed by President Jimmy Carter, looks to be making a revival in America’s self-narrative. Also in revival, I believe, is superpower ineptitude: Washington pulls out of Afghanistan with all the dignity of a felon on the scram, Beijing is not exactly filling the skies around Taiwan with angelic avatars of peace.
History knows itself and its direction before we mere mortals do and, proceeding apace on its own timetable, leaves us behind in apprehensive catch-up mode.
So how to assuage our roiling global soul? What should be happening, isn’t: Climate change cooperation is the most obvious example; nuclear proliferation as well. Another: if worldwide terrorism is so big a problem, then would not a joint consultative approach between Beijing and Washington offer more utility than cretinous policies of either lock ‘em up or drone ‘em down?
There are no poetics In our politics these days. The tenor of China-U.S. diplomacy is prosaic at best. Also worry that we – the audience — contribute to the dreary droop by fixating on shaky images. We look for role models of peace in the wrong places. I was hit with this obvious point by an attractive advertisement in this newspaper bannering the start of the new season of concerts by the very impressive Hong Kong Philharmonic.
Yes, I am a classical music groupie who believes we should listen more often to Bach, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Scriabin — even John Williams — than to secular sirens of contemporary politics. Composers who also conduct especially inspire large visions: the late Leonard Bernstein; from Finland the contemporary genius Esa Pekka Salonen, now headlining the San Francisco Symphony and orchestrating original and edgy concert programming. (a banner word, too, for Hong Kong born-and-raised, dynamic Elim Chan, now conducting great orchestras in Europe.)
Yes, Hong Kong has talent. Jaap van Zweden, the renowned HK Phil maestro, described his impending programming this fall almost in operatic terms: “This season’s theme — ‘Harbour a Love of Music’ – reflects my deep belief that classical music can be a source of peace, healing and unity.” But powerful classical music is not always appreciated for being above politics, even as in my view it is superior to it. Famously, Stalin hated important works by contemporary Dimitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest classical composers ever; but instead of having him yanked to gulag, forced him into party membership and, indeed, leadership of the nation’s professional musician’s organization.
Julian Barnes, the award-winning English novelist, courageously plunged into the deep waters of the artist in constant tension with the state in his carefully conceived novel ‘The Noise of Time’. It is one of my favorites, not just because of its deft portrait of the legendary Shostakovich but its definite imaging of a feral Stalinist state singing a much different tune. The profound moral question raised by Barnes is whether the artist is always justified in pursuing his art no matter the ethical nature of the state, or must the artist always present herself in noisy open desk-pounding opposition to government power. Some think this a hard question but, in my view, it is not: Art can endure forever, like Verdi’s overwhelming Dies Irae, for example, but not unless it is first created, nurtured and, at least to some extent, revered. Imprisoning the artist within the politics of the day is not a proper employment of genius but a threat to inspired creative evolution.
Musical genius will remain embedded in human hearts and memories long after the Pied Pipers of politics are consigned to the bloodless dissections of future historians. It’s as if we’re trudging across a desert of despair and our spirits lift with a vision of an apparent watering-hole: Is this a true oasis, or just a misleading mirage? That was the question recently bandied about regarding the new PRC ambassador to Washington. If you don’t subscribe to the notion that it’s very important, as I don’t either, why not subscribe instead to a season with the HK Phil? Maestro Jaap is back — now there’s a true leader for our times.