In recent months, markers of U.S. suspicion toward China have begun to feel routine. For instance: A World Trade Organization panel has just ruled that the U.S. has violated trading rules with its insistence that imports from Hong Kong should be labeled as coming from China — and the U.S. has rejected the ruling by saying it’s a national security issue. Such stories make news, but usually don’t gain a lot of traction, because they’ve gradually formed a part of a new normal. The potential downside to this is that we enter the climate change paradigm, where the end of the world becomes background music that no-one can really hear any more.
If that is a problem, then on Twitter the Tricky Taipei blog recently flagged up a compelling corrective: Go back and rewatch the 2014 “Parts Unknown” episode where Anthony Bourdain visits Shanghai. Seriously. This isn’t a joke. The episode now functions as a time capsule, transporting viewers back to a time when the U.S. saw China incredibly differently. And in doing that it also allows viewers to access a more visceral reaction to what’s happening now. It’s mesmerizing.
Bourdain opens the episode with a narration that pitches Shanghai as the emerging center of the world, and celebrates its mix of ultra modern consumerism and traditional Chinese culture. He then kicks off his tour of the city by meeting Lin Zhou (周林), at the time the dean of the College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University — who we are told has also taught at Yale, Duke and Arizona State University. The dean tells us that the key to China’s explosive economic growth has been a prolonged period of peace, plus economic reform and an open door policy which has seen “every country willing to trade with China.” Bourdain adds that the U.S. and China’s fates are inextricably bound together because of major economic ties.
Every item in that meeting is now transformed into a matter of major controversy. The dean’s experience teaching in the U.S. brings to mind the “China Initiative,” which was created by the Trump administration “to crack down on economic espionage by China but has been criticized as unfairly targeting Chinese professors at American colleges because of their ethnicity.” His point about prolonged peace would be seen as a lightning rod for discussion of China’s threats to take Taiwan. His point about economic reform would provoke a barrage of responses alleging intellectual property theft and fraudulent market manipulation via state intervention. For Bourdain’s point about the two countries being inextricably linked together, in the era of “decoupling” (which is not to be called decoupling), there’d be dozens of opinion pieces about why he was wrong.
The episode continues along the same lines, and for most of it it is simply the tonal difference which is so striking. Bourdain goes to meet a magazine features writer and her friends, and he jokes that the biggest threat to the U.S. is that China gets so good at free markets it comes to dominate the U.S. He has dinner with a millionaire and puts his hand up to joke that he’s a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before being gifted some wine. He goofs around with a self-declared hacker at a wedding. Hacking, accusations of CCP influence, and Chinese hegemony are all now hotly contested issues, treated with dour seriousness in mainstream outlets. Seeing the laughter now is like a tragic joke.
Admittedly, some critique does make it into the show. There is a line of narration about how things are not always as the official line says in China, for instance. And Bourdain was more critical of American foreign policy than some — perhaps coming under his main life philosophy of being “a good guest” wherever he went. However, he was more cool than politically radical — and was not fundamentally averse to calling for greater levels of U.S. foreign policy intervention. So, he’s not bad as a weathervane to compare where things were to where they are. And the ending of the episode leaves us with a clear indication of Bourdain’s position. Over images of Shanghai, he narrates: “Where are we going? Who will drive us there? What will it be like when we get there? I think it will look like this.”
It is basically impossible to imagine an equivalently mainstream American TV personality offering this kind of soft endorsement now. And the difference really hits home when you actually do try to find a direct comparison. Right now, Netflix carries two series that purport to do a tour of Asian street food in a similar style to Bourdain’s show (though of course without the charisma): 2019’s “Street Food: Asia” and 2022’s “Midnight Asia: Eat. Dance. Dream.” Neither of these has an episode filmed in China.
In eight years, the world has changed dramatically. Bourdain himself is gone, and now, watching him joking around in Shanghai is tinged with melancholy.