Starbucks in the Forbidden City: some Chinese views

Rui Chenggang
The Starbucks coffeeshop in the Forbidden City might be forced to leave after an online campaign against it started by CCTV anchor Rui Chenggang (芮成钢) on his blogs on Sina and Jonathan Watts' article in The Guardian is the best English language roundup of the affair. Excerpt:
Starbucks faces eviction from the Forbidden City

According to local media, half a million people have signed [Rui's] online petition and dozens of newspapers have carried prominent stories about the controversy. "The Starbucks was put here six years ago, but back then, we didn't have blogs. This campaign is living proof of the power of the web", said Rui. "The Forbidden City is a symbol of China's cultural heritage. Starbucks in a symbol of lower middle class culture in the west. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination."...

... Mr Rui said ... "But please don't interpret this as an act of nationalism. It is just about we Chinese people respecting ourselves. I actually like drinking Starbucks coffee. I am just against having one in the Forbidden City."

Danwei contributor Banyue talked to a bunch of Chinese people in their 20s, and asked them what they thought about Starbucks in the Forbidden City. Below are some of the responses:

A Xing, 25, who works in a trading company said that if there were other shops or bars in Forbidden City, it would be OK. But he thinks Starbucks should not be there if it is the only store of its kind.

Yang Zhen, 24, a postgraduate student doesn't really like it but accepts it as a fact, saying "They are strong culture, and things like this will happen more and more."

Yu Tian, 24, a policeman, said "Getting hell out of the Forbidden City is right thing for them to do." (滚出去是最好的选择)

Flypig, 24, media person and Antiwave podcaster, said: "Sounds good, it must be cool sitting there for coffee and chatting."

Wang Xuhui, 24, a PhD student, says that having a Starbucks in the Forbidden City isn't the best choice from a commercial view (商业上不是最优选择), and that perhaps a tea house would be more harmonious.

Views about the affair on the Chinese Internet are very diverse. For more opinions, see this Netease Chinese thread about it , including this one: "So what are you going to do about it! This is the age of money can buy anything."

UPDATE: Geoffrey A. Fowler's article in The Wall Street Journal (available without subscription here) makes it very much a story about blogging and is titled "How blogging can galvanize China".

UPDATE 2:Rebecca MacKinnon comments:

[The Wall Street Journal article] quotes Rui as saying: "Blogging is giving ordinary grass-roots Chinese people a chance to express themselves."

Let's keep a few things in perspective. Rui is no "ordinary grass-roots Chinese person." I first met him not in Beijing but in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Unlike most "grass-roots" people he gets invited to speak at international meetings where he rubs shoulders with CEO's. As a very smart, sophisticated, and globally minded guy, Rui can talk to powerful people in their own language and they bother to answer his e-mails.

Rui is one of several relatively young and increasingly influential Chinese journalists who write popular blogs - and whose popularity and influence has increased thanks to their blogs...

His Starbucks blog post got the attention it did because of his position, because it contained original information about a direct conversation with a global CEO, and because the editors of chose to highlight that blog post prominently on their front page. My friend Roland Soong says he told a journalist who called him for comment about the story that the power in this situation lies as much with anonymous editors at who giveth influence and taketh away. (The journalist did not end up quoting Roland on this point.)

She also notes that Rui is not himself a crazy nationalist, even though many of the people commenting on his anti-Starbucks campaign are. As evidence of this, refer to Roland Soong's translation of Rui's opinion piece An essay about Japan that every Chinese person ought to read.

There are currently 24 Comments for Starbucks in the Forbidden City: some Chinese views.

Comments on Starbucks in the Forbidden City: some Chinese views

There's a Chinese restaurant in the US Congress office building - should we kick it out if the ultra-nationalists in China kick out Starbucks?

Thanks for the material! I've got to write an essay about this for my Chinese class on Monday...

Haha, and I blogged about here in german.
What a useful article, thank you very much for posting it.

Is the Chinese restaurant in Congress a powerful icon of Chinese culture and Chinese globalization, run by a powerful, multi-national Chinese mega-conglomerate?

I am not a fan of Starbucks and I wouldn't agree with a Chinese or other foreign company setting up shop at the Liberty Bell Museum but we would have a notice placed before the public before the store ever opens.
You are in the WTO.

Business is business...You should have thought of this before 1999. Why is there a protect 8 years after the fact?

Is this a nationalistic move pre-Olympics in order to save face?

Its great you are in a country that can protest foreigners especially when you plan to welcome them all the middle of next year (the Olympics will be a joke)...why don't you protest cooking oil companies that put human and industrial in the bottles?

I imagine the Chinese government is laughing about this whole thing. This "controversy" is just another way to keep the people focused on meaningless BS, instead of real issues

I just visited the Forbidden City and what struck me was not the Starbucks (I never saw it) but the signs for all of the sights which were sponsored/provided by American Express. Plus, there's a Chinese-run coffee shop inside the Forbidden City that has a large Lavazza ad. Does that count as well?

I was also more surprised to see the Amex signs. Starbucks China is simply renting a commercial space. If it weren't them, it would have been another big franchise ( local or international ). The Amex signs clearly state that the restoration of certain parts of the Forbidden City was made possible through assistance from American Express... which is much more appalling.

Daiwei contributor Banyue must be living among lunatics. Few Chinese, in my experience, will be taken in by the nationalists, who are very degraded in their morals. If you don't want friendly relations between East and West, well and good. But if you do, you must find a way of wiping out these reactionary jingos.

This was all started by a TV reporter right?

Interesting...he can boycott Starbucks which is a product of America BUT he is fine with using Television---also a product of America---as his soapbox...HYPOCRITE!!!!!!!!!!!!

Perhaps Mr. Rui wants to continue to expand his recognition and improve his ratings on CCTV. He knows his blog is followed blindly by the grouppies who can't think for themselves. This Starbucks location is not a new event. And inside the Palace Museum, what about the "secret" shops behind closed doors that are opened only by "guides" who know where these doors are, leading unsuspecting tourists from other countries to buy the over priced trinkets? Is fleecing of foreign tourists ok? Why not, it is done all over China. And what about the new joint venture of Sinopec and McDonalds? I would think the Chinese people would go after Sinopec for making it so easy, and for burger starved citizens to fill thier bellies anonymously in their homes while watching a French movie. Come on Rui, your popularity is soaring, do you want more, more more?

What's next? Evict Coca Cola's trolley from Guangzhou's Beijing Road?
Then they would have to replace all those glass tiles with the Coca Cola logo that cover the glass top of the historical underground street exhibit.

Internet campaigns only work in China when there is an ultra-nationalistic angle, whether intentional or not.

I'd like to see this Rui Chenggang bloke try blogging about Taishi, that village in rural Guangdong that got the short end of the government's stick. Ask those peasants what they think about Starbucks in the Forbidden City. They probably think "Xing Ba" is a sex bar.

I don't suppose that Americans realise how unpopular their efforts at Americanisation of the the world is.No one objects to using technology that is invented in the Sates, but the big brand merchants are a different matter, after all it's free choice. This is not a boycott on American goods, it's about what is appropiate and what's not. I would object if it was in my capital city in an unappropiate place. Television was invented by Baird in Scotland, by the way.

Starbucks is just not a suitable company to have in the Forbidden City. Would agree with the bloggers who also complain about the American Express ads on the signs inside. They look silly, exploitive and cheap. Well they are, aren't they?

tom, glad you pointed out the john logie baird connection, although the russians may disagree (I think the point was that TV came from the West), but why exactly is starbucks not a suitable company for Forbidden City?

Unless all commercial ventures in Gu Gong are prohibited, Starbucks should be left alone. At the end of the day, tourists like drinking coffee (just as they like drinking water or eating sunflower seeds) and Starbucks makes coffee. So why the objection? You have any other coffee sellers you would like to recommend?

actually I'm a Chinese living rt in Beijing.To me,I think ppl living here may need some time to get accustomed to accepting facts like these.And one more thing I wanna say is that the Internet is the Internet does,I don't want to deem it seriously what ppl say on the line.It's a well-known secret that the China's gov. is fucking shit on lots of subjects.I think it to be a fact we Chinese today or 2morrow have to accept,and we are doing like that.

Come on! the Forbidden City is the one treasure in China,it has like thousands of history!How about the starbucks open business in Louvre Museum by the way?? How you guys put the Forbidden city compare with Coca Cola's ??!!

yeah it's just because of the olympic games coming up to gracefully 'save face' and be extremely nationalistic 国家主义的 'ohhh look at our lovely history all five thousand years of it and we're still 50 years behind the world, ooops where did it all go wrong' They'll protest against this in one breath and then in another be just as greedy in the olympics like the Gu Gong boss who ageed to allow starbucks through the gates in the first place, money grabber.

agree to some extent with G. beijing has pretty much knocked down its unique cultural heritage with forbidden city one of the few places left with a history before 1980. focusing on dastardly starbucks takes the heat off the city government. if the author was a real patriot, he would be writing essays on the shame of beijing's urban development and not worrying too much about what is anyway a fairly low key starbucks branch.

du rou - a starbucks in the louvre? that bastion of culture and art. could never happen. there would be great patriotic outcries. oh, wait a second, what's this:

The Forbidden City is a historical monument and a national shrine, like Independence Hall or the Houses of Parliament. Would you want a Japanese restaurant in Independence Hall or an Indian place in the Houses of Parliament? Is it really appropriate for the setting? I don't think so, but I WOULD recommend a Chinese restaurant in the Forbidden City! (I would NOT, however, recommend putting anything into Independence Hall, because it is such a small building. But I wouldn't mind a fish and chips pub in the Houses of Parliament...)

Chain restaurants tarnish historic edifices if not done right. While the Starbucks appears to blend in with the Forbidden City fabric, it's not really Chinese. Come to think of it, certain railroad stations in New Jersey shouldn't be inviting Dunkin' Donuts inside for similar reasons (what's railroadish or local about a donut and coffee chain? Come on!)

Forbidden City Chinese Restaurant---so trouble!!!
I am Chinese, today I feel exciting when I know I could visit to Chinese restaurant, but when I get there I feel so bad!!!
The washroom was dirty, and the food was just so so, and the imporant thing was the waitress - a younger woman's attitude let me feel so sick!!!
We had more than 30 people but we only could had 2 deal for share, that means 15 people share only 1 deal!!!How can we feel full and enjoy that!!! So sad!!!

Rui maybe 6 years too late to protest the infamous Starbucks in the Forbidden City, and some may even say that he’s an attention grabber.

But he pose a fundamental question, does a country want a national icon, a national identity, a historical heritage becoming just an economical site where all transactions take place? No. Because we are patriotic, not nationalistic. Communism or capitalism, however the views are different, one thing comes down, and one got to be patriotic.

We feel distraught, is not simply because ah, we don’t want American products there. In fact, Chinese adore brand names. The lines for Pizza Hut are a prime example. It’s because we feel that if foreigners visit the heart and the soul of our country’s past, at least we should give them something authentic to remember by. Like authentic cuisines and even little gifts. American products just simply don’t represent our national identity. The reason we worry so much is because we don’t want to loose our tradition, our culture, and our identity.

Personally I didn’t know that the FC itself invited Starbucks to come and that there are American Express logos everywhere, if that happens, I would be in line with the others to support our own sponsors, and to show something that we have proudly to the world, and not saying that we are doing that just for the Olympic games.

Starbucks should not be allowed to operate business in the Forbidden City in the first place. I just don't understand how government officials would have allowed a modern outlet to be located within a cultural heritage. It's not about Starbucks, it's about maintaining the purity and respect for history and cultural sites. I mean, what would happen if a fast food outlet, McDonalds suddenly open shop in Angkor Wat or Machuu Pichuu. I don't oppose franchises, but as far as cultural sites are concerned, we should do our utmost to preserve the history & culture of a certain site of any ancient civilisation. They are evidence of history of mankind. I'm sure any tourist who visits a country, is eager to learn about culture and history of that country. They will understand that they won;t get to rest in a modern outlet in a middle of a cultural site. They will be contented with a bottle of mineral water or snacks that they brought while travelling. If an outlet is necessary for tourists to rest or relax, then, the chosen site should be slightly away from the cultural site.

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