China's Starbucks showdown illustrates Web's influence

by Evan Osnos

Chicago Tribune

28 January 2007

Starbucks employees stand by
the counter at the company's coffee bar in the Forbidden City section of Beijing, China. (Tim Johnson/MCT) 

BEIJING - Six years ago, Starbucks drew a blip of attention when it opened a small shop inside the Forbidden City, Beijing’s vast imperial palace.

Back then, China’s Internet barely existed, blogging had not yet earned a Mandarin word - boke - and Rui Chenggang was just a fresh college graduate breaking into television news.

But in today’s China, six years is an eternity.

Rui is now a recognizable face on state television, and when he wrote a blog entry this month calling for Starbucks to withdraw from the Forbidden City as a sign of cultural respect, he sparked a media storm over the power of the Web, the power of nationalism and China’s power to manage both.

Palace authorities are weighing whether to banish the coffee chain from the historic site, and thousands of Web users are visiting Rui’s Web site each day to praise or blast him. To many of them, he is either the voice of China’s conscience or a flag-waving opportunist, though Rui says he didn’t set out to open a national debate on China’s ambivalent embrace of the West.

“I never realized it would become such a big thing,” said Rui, the host for English-language news on China Central Television.

In challenging the Seattle-based behemoth, the 29-year-old defies some stereotypes about China’s 20 million bloggers and 137 million Web users. He is not a rebel, because his position on state television and his message are closely aligned with China’s official thinking. Yet he is also not a global-phobic patriot of the type that easily draws crowds on the Chinese Web.

In any other context, Rui’s polished looks and resume mark him as exactly the kind of middle-class Chinese consumer the world’s brands are desperate to entice. Since graduating from Beijing’s Foreign Affairs College, he has darted between foreign fellowships and forums, from Yale to Tokyo. Last week he jetted to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Lollapalooza of global integration.

While some supporters have taken his campaign as a call to arms - “Boycott Starbucks because this is culture aggression!” as one reply put it - Rui has steered away from extremes.

“I’m not against Starbucks at all. I probably had my most recent cup of Starbucks in Chicago on the Magnificent Mile,” he said in an interview. “All I want is for it to be in the right place.”

Five years after China entered the World Trade Organization, its 1.3 billion consumers captivate the attention of global executives straining to put Nikes, Levi’s, and Caramel Macchiatos into as many Chinese hands as possible. But the Starbucks showdown illustrates how the Web is shaping foreign brands’ fortunes in unpredictable ways.

Western companies have repeatedly run into online brushfires in China’s growing Web community. With few other ways to protest within China, consumers see the Web as a raucous town square.

Procter & Gamble and Toyota, among others, have found themselves under fire from Chinese Web critics for controversial ingredients, work practices or advertising. And in 2003, new laws on historical sites in parts of Beijing spurred a KFC restaurant to pull out of a prime spot in Beihai Park, an imperial-era retreat built by Kublai Khan.

This controversy could hardly come at a more vulnerable moment for Starbucks because the chain is making a major new push into China. Since opening its first store in Beijing in 1999, Starbucks has launched more than 190 outlets nationwide, blanketing Beijing and Shanghai with its forest-green logo and even opening a store at the base of the Great Wall. The company tells investors that it expects China will become its largest international market.

At the moment, the chain is blitzing cities with tastings and special promotions to convince non-coffee-drinking masses that coffee is a mark of individuality and class. It has even spawned imitators, with new chains such as SPR Coffee emerging with conspicuously green signs and lettering.

Amid all that activity, the tiny Starbucks store inside Beijing’s majestic 600-year-old palace complex next to Tiananmen Square seemed an unlikely flash point. Its opening in 2000 drew initial clucking, but it was soon churning out lattes and Frappuccinos in the sweeping shadow of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, former home of emperors in the Ming and early Qing dynasties.

For the 5 million Chinese and 1 million foreigners who visit the Forbidden City each year, Starbucks is easy to miss: It shares space with a gift shop under an orange-tile roof; it has no external sign and only five stools, drawing a modest stream of bemused visitors who stumble on it after hours of wandering around the 180-acre campus.

Now that capitalism has breached the ancient palace gates, the shop’s menu and Cuban soundtrack seem little more out of place than the stores peddling Olympic trinkets and souvenir business-card cases.

On a frigid recent afternoon, visitors who happened upon the coffee shop were divided over its future there.

“They should put something more Chinese here. We don’t like coffee very much,” said Wu Qiang, a 31-year-old tourist from China’s northeast.

Wang Di, a 20-year-old tour guide, shrugged off the debate: “Where else can people go to get something to drink here?”

Rui took his complaints public this month after sending a letter asking Starbucks CEO Jim Donald to close the Forbidden City site. In a statement, Starbucks said it “appreciates the deep history and culture of the Forbidden City and has operated in a respectful manner that fits within the environment.”

But after Rui’s campaign took off, Beijing authorities told the state-run New China news service this month that they would decide by June whether the coffee shop could stay.

If Rui succeeds in getting Starbucks to pull out of the Forbidden City, it would signal a more moderate side of China’s Web-activism, more nuanced than knee-jerk.

Roland Soong, the Hong Kong-based host of the popular EastSouthWestNorth blog, which chronicles China’s Internet, pointed out that Rui was able to build a following thanks, in part, to name recognition. Newspapers and major Chinese portals, such as Sina.com, that might have ignored a more obscure commentator promoted Rui’s campaign and amplified its impact. That mix of message and messenger, Soong says, has proved a powerful recipe on China’s Web.

“There are a dozen or so anonymous gatekeepers at the major Internet portals and they say, `I like this one, and it goes to the front page,’” Soong said. “And an ordinary person pounding on a keyboard somewhere isn’t going to get the same treatment.”

Rui prefers to think of himself as an Everyman - that is, an Everyman who likes to go to Davos. Until word of Starbucks’ fate arrives, he is struggling to keep his signature issue away from China’s most volatile margins.

“This is not an issue of nationalism,” he said. “The message I am trying to send is about preservation of our national heritage. I am totally in favor of globalization. And China is in favor of globalization.”


Andy Yang contributed to this report.

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