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    China Business
     Jan 25, 2007
China's storm in a coffee cup
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The recent fierce debate among China's webloggers over the operation of a Starbucks outlet in Beijing's Forbidden City was, in fact, started by a deliberate rehash of old pieces of news.

To be fair, the US coffee-shop chain is not at fault in opening an outlet in the Forbidden City. Its operation there is legal. Without official approval, no one can start any commercial operation anywhere in China, let alone in this ancient palace complex.

Starbucks opened the Forbidden City branch on September 18, 2000. The mini-cafe is at the southeastern corner of the Hall of

Preserving Harmony (Baohedian), one of the three most impressive buildings in the complex, which used to be the venue for feasts of the emperors on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

Controversy on the Internet began shortly thereafter. A poll by the popular portal Sina.com showed that more than 70% of nearly 60,000 people surveyed were opposed to Starbucks' entry into the Forbidden City, the main reason being the damaging effect on a Chinese cultural heritage and its atmosphere, according to a report by the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, on November 24, 2000.

Many critics were foreigners, including Americans. A foreign visitor to the Forbidden City was quoted as saying: "Why not a teahouse here instead?" He said he believed that there was a right place for everything. A Chinese tourist from northeastern China's Dalian city did not agree. "The cafe is not big, and it is hidden from view," he argued. "It would not affect [the environment of] the Forbidden City."

Starbucks was soon forced to remove its trademark green sign in favor of the Chinese characters for Xing Ba Ke, which now adorns the window.

The Starbucks controversy also led to public discussion about the KFC chain that was to be withdrawn from Beihai Park northwest of the Forbidden City.

It should be pointed out that this happened not long after US warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (on May 7, 1999) during the Kosovo crisis, triggering an outpouring of fury in Beijing.

A couple of years later, this old story was rehashed again on some websites but failed to attract public attention.

So it can be said that Starbucks' Forbidden City cafe has survived for more than six years amid controversy. Hence it is puzzling why the debate has been revived with greater intensity. Neither supporters nor opponents have offered fresh arguments for or against the presence of the US coffee shop in the ancient Chinese imperial palace - all can be found in those "ancient" news stories.

The current flap began last week, when, Rui Chenggang, a 29-year-old anchor for a China Central Television English-language program who spent last year as a fellow at Yale University, stated in a blog, "Why Starbucks Needs to Get out of the Forbidden City", that the "obscene" shop's presence was "not globalizing but trashing Chinese culture".

By the weekend, Rui claimed his website had registered more than half a million "hits" and drawn thousands of supportive responses. What he did not mention was that there were also many opposing his view.

If the debate remains rational, it may help the authorities to sort out the current policy toward commercial operations in historic and cultural sites. Furthermore, it may help people reach a better understanding of how China can preserve its cultural roots while opening its arms to embrace globalization.

From this point of view, angry talk by those "Internauts" who condemn the presence of Starbucks as a "symbol of American cultural invasion", or anything similar, sound like one big farce. But such irrational words may reflect that nationalism is growing among some Chinese people, particularly the young, which, if misplaced, could easily turn into a new type of xenophobia jeopardizing the country's reform.

If Starbucks must be forced out of the Forbidden City, what about all other foreign things? As Beijing Youth Daily commentator Zhu Shugu wrote, "If we remove all tourist facilities related to Western culture for the sake of original flavor, then we will certainly have to expel more than Starbucks."

The Forbidden City is a tourist spot that is open to foreigners. A teahouse there would certainly be more in character with Chinese culture. But what if a foreign tourist prefers to have some coffee? Should all things foreign, even ice cream, mobile phones and cameras, be banned? Don't forget, Empress Cixi, living in the Forbidden City at the turn of the 20th century, used to regard the camera as an "evil eye" that could take away one's soul. What about toilets there? Should they be restored to the ancient style?

In essence, the debate may be just another example of China's love-hate relationship with Western capitalism since it opened its doors in the late 1970s. Nevertheless, it is useless, or even dangerous, for either side in the debate to push their arguments to extremes and further complicate the issue.

As a matter of fact, whether Starbucks should be allowed to operate a small outlet in the Forbidden City is a simple issue of management. But management is a huge problem in historic and cultural sites across China. To tourists, these locations are dominated by commercial activities nowadays. Shops have mushroomed and tourist facilities, many arguably unnecessary, have been constructed.

In the past, the management authority of the Palace Museum (as the Forbidden City complex is formally called in Chinese) rented it out for the shooting of film and television dramas and for concerts to raise funds for maintenance. The Great Wall has also been rented out for people to hold parties.

Authorities apparently want to calm down the current debate over Starbucks for fear of arousing public anger. "The museum is working with Starbucks to find a solution by this June in response to the protests," the state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted a museum spokesman as saying. "Whether or not Starbucks stays open depends upon the entire renovation plan" of the Forbidden City.

It would be a positive development if the current debate could lead the government to conduct a serious review of its policy toward protection of historic and cultural sites. Through public consultation, the government could work out clear-cut rules on what should be allowed or prohibited on historic sites. This way similar controversies could be avoided.

China wants to embrace the market economy. In a market economy, a commercial contract must be fully respected. Under no circumstances should a contract be revoked by one party. Since Starbucks has been given the contract to run its Forbidden City branch, it should be allowed to continue its operations unless it wants out on its own.

It would create a very bad precedent if the authorities, under public pressure, moved to force Starbucks to close down its mini-cafe before the contract expired. The damage to China's image would be far more serious than any done to the image of the Forbidden City by the presence of Starbucks.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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