Sunday 12 August 2012

China's Gastrodiplomacy on BBC2

I am enjoying a new series on BBC 2 called Exploring China:A Culinary Adventure, presented by Ken Hom (from Hong Kong living in the US) and Ching-He Huang (from Taiwan living in the UK). Ken and Ching-He are travelling through China to experience the regional cuisines and to find out whether the economic transformation of the country has changed the dietry habits of the Chinese and their style of cooking. On the way, they discuss their own backgrounds and talk about rediscovering their Chinese roots.

Gastrodiplomacy is becoming a defined field of international communications and engagement in its own right, and my friend Paul Rockower has written a lot about this on his own blog (the links are on the left hand side of this page). Exploring China is not only a contribution to China's gastrodiplomacy, but also demonstrates Chinese soft power in action.

First, both presenters never tire of explaining how China has changed since they last visited (Ken Hom in the politically-turbulent year of 1989, but so far he has not mentioned that this was the year when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred) and pointing out the new additions to the landscape as evidence of China's transformation. In each episode they also venture outside the cities to provide a nice juxtaposition of modern and traditional: Clearly the message is 'The more things change, the more they stay the same ... ' They have so far encountered no obstacles in their journey, no-one trying to prevent their filming or denying them access to anywhere, and their own cooking has been greeted with a unanimous 'hao che' - delicious.

So the programme is apolitical, which is not unexpected in a programme about food. The presenters' enthusiasm and excitement is infectious, while tempting viewers to not only eat Chinese cuisine, but to try cooking it at home (the BBC website where the recipies are published is advertised regularly during the programme). This is an aromatic, tasty, spicy, and above all good-natured portrait of China. The culinary diversity is a gateway into understanding the cultural and social diversity of modern China, which is welcome in an information and news environment which tends to over-concentrate on Beijing (for political news) and Shanghai (for economic stories). The Chinese government could not have asked for a better introduction to its country, especially when its own soft power strategy was designed as a reaction to the alleged demonization of China by the western media. Here the BBC, one of the most internationally powerful, influential and trusted media organisations, is helping China realise its own ambitions; and that is not meant as a criticism. It is a side-product, an unintended consequence of an excellent television programme. 
Moreover, the fact that both presenters are culturally Chinese, but that neither is from the PRC, adds an interesting dimension. We are not exactly seeing China through the eyes of outsiders, but both Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang are nevertheless sufficiently removed from China to see the country in a refreshing light that does challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that so aggravate the Chinese . In other words, through Exploring China the country is accumulating an incredible amount of soft power capital without having to do anything except allow two chefs and their film crews wander around markets and into kitchens to cook. It is an authentic non-Chinese (and therefore a most credible) induction into China that is likely to match, if not surpass the efforts of the Confucius Institutes, CCTV 9 and CNC.