Blogging Trumps Starbucks In China
North Americans are accustomed to seeing Starbucks — pretty much everywhere. Sometimes on more than one street corner. It might not surprise a North American, therefore, to find a Starbucks in the middle of the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing.
While you ponder the incredible history around you, you can also enjoy an double almond no-foam latte.
Well, it may not last for long.
In a move that demonstrates the power of blogging in China — particularly amongst the media elite — Starbucks may face eviction out of this plum lease, as a popular media host has, on his blog, has delivered some sharp criticism of the coffee chain as it stands in this historical landmark.
The International Herald Tribune reports that he had written that:
The outlet is “a symbol of low-end U.S. food culture” and “an insult to Chinese civilization,” Rui Chenggang, an anchor at state broadcaster China Central Television, wrote on his personal Web log. The blog has attracted over 540,000 hits and thousands of responses in Internet chat rooms since last Friday.See Also
To be fair, Starbucks is not the only multinational corporation with its logos gracing these Imperial halls; according to the article, American Express has its logos “under every sign board that provides descriptions of the palace’s halls.”
While it took a (rather famous) blogger to initiate the conversation, I think its one that the West has been grappling with for sometime — the invasion of our spaces, sometimes our special public places, with advertising and commercialized messages.
Tony Hung is the editor of the BlogHerald. He is also a physician finishing his last year of residency in General Internal Medicine, and blogs at Deep Jive Interests , where he rants, occasionally, on new media topics.
Everyone was so excited when I was living in Israel about the arrival of the first Starbucks. It was down the street from two McDonalds and other “American” style fast foods. Israelis are serious about their coffee drinking. Starbucks barely lasted a year before opening another location and then closing them all.
The reason given was that the customer service didn’t blend in with the culture (too nice) and the coffee wasn’t “good” enough.
So China isn’t the first place to whine about Starbucks, though stockholders, especially those who got in on the ground floor, aren’t whining. ;-)
When I lived in Beijing I often liked to tell my people at home about the Starbucks located in the Forbidden City as it did display the strange paradox of contemporary China. On the one hand the country is a tenuously held together Empire of various peoples with varying degrees of assimilation into the culture of the Han majority. On the other hand, it is a country kept in line with the Autocratic principles of the public censuring individuals under the guidance of the central authorities (the Cultural Revolution is the dramatic and widespread example of this method. More recently we find that grassroots blog movements have effected the job security and even physical safety of a university professor who was suspected by a mob of bloggers to be cheating on his wife). Diversity in China is tied closely to what the government imagines it can control. Minorities in Xingjian, Mongolia, Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet are manageable and even permitted some autonomy, as they are quaint reminders of what The Party has rescued the assimilated Chinese from. At the same time, these minorities are much reminded that the Han majority is the dominant gene pool in all important aspects of Chinese culture.
There are two problems with China’s Imperial ideology and they come from both sides of the political spectrum. Chinese peasants have not been assimilated. They languish in the countryside, as farming has been industrialized, and while the government has spent vast treasure in developing the Eastern Seaside the Western Hinterland (the majority of landmass) is largely a highly populated wilderness that the government has divested of. On the other end of the spectrum is the introduction of the West with our trademarked fast food, our capital and the Internet.
Those Chinese you are likely to meet in Beijing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Guangzhou or Shenzhen will more likely be in closer communion with international bloggers and reflect what we desire for ourselves then to the life-style of Chinese farmers. At the same time, these same people will have greater sympathy for the farmers then they would with you and I, as these farmers are Chinese. While the globalized Chinese will outwardly be sympathetic to our notions of free speech, property rights and upward mobility, the vast internal spaces of their sympathy will be with any Chinese. Even as they will derogate farmers, as calling one a farmer is a great insult in today’s China, these farmers are recognized to lie in the heart of Chineseness. Meanwhile us “Old Outsiders”, if we are white, and “Black Devils”, if we are black, are no more then external stimulus.
How does this relate to Starbucks? As Chinese pride has awakened, it has manifest in many ways. The industrious managing class is the engine of Chinese pride. These men and women run the factories that give us Western consumers our “things”. They now capitalize on their fellow Chinese peasants but in the long run it is meant to better all of China and place her back in her rightful spot, the Center of Kingdoms. All Chinese will benefit from this both materially and spiritually, as they can again be proud of being Chinese. This pride has awakened Chinese awareness of its ancient culture. The Forbidden City, and Great Wall and surviving temples had been left to rot for many decades under the Communists. Only the interest of tourists kept these sites of any interest to anyone. The Communists destroyed most of China’s relics during their Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of years of culture in architecture, literature, learning, music, art and their scholars were simply removed from existence. I compare Mao to a 19th Century psychologist who chose to solve hysteria with a lobotomy. The rebirth of Chinese national pride is the root cause of the removal of Starbucks from the Forbidden City. To me, this removal is appropriate. I always viewed the presence of that mermaid as something of a hypocrisy. But, according to market principles, there was no reason to remove the Starbucks, as it was a popular concession stand.
There is a key difference between the situation in China and that of Israel. In Israel the market dictated Starbucks’ failure. Who might have imagined that the Israelis would out Europe the Europeans? To Israelis, Starbucks tastes like what it is, poorly roasted, medium quality coffee beans. There are three kinds of coffee Israelis drink. High quality beans roasted at the premium temperatures for the perfect amount of time, Turkish coffee with a strong cardamom flavor, and some Israelis are fond of Nescafe instant coffee. Not much of Starbucks’ failure in Israel can be attributed to nationalism or anti-corporate sentiment. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf does quite well in Israel and you will find plenty of cafes serving illy coffee among other European corporate brands. Meanwhile, in Beijing, you will find a Starbucks around every corner. I used to live on the northern part of Beijing’s 3rd Ring Road. This put me a good 5 miles from the “heart of Beijing”. Still, I was in easy walking distance of three Starbucks. Generally speaking, 99% of Chinese coffee drinkers will not have tasted a coffee of better quality then what Starbucks has to offer. To the Chinese, Starbucks is a top quality coffee worth its price.
The removal of Starbucks from the Forbidden City is the removal of outsiders from the traditional Chinese heart. I foresee the Chinese being perfectly comfortable allowing outsiders to play a role in the less symbolic legs and arms of the Chinese economy. Starbucks will help the Chinese become a super-power but, to the Chinese mind, the heart must remain Chinese. I have much to say about the authenticity of China’s image of its traditions but that should be left for other essays.