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
(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."
soon forced to remove its trademark green sign in
favor of the Chinese characters for Xing Ba Ke,
which now adorns the window.
controversy also led to public discussion about
the KFC chain that was to be withdrawn from Beihai
Park northwest of the Forbidden City.
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
A couple of years later, this old
story was rehashed again on some websites but
failed to attract public attention.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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