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Starbucks brews storm in China's Forbidden City

Tourists walk past the Starbucks cafe in Beijing's Forbidden City
Tourists walk past the Starbucks cafe in Beijing's Forbidden City  

In this story:

Testing the waters

Visitors: 'What's the fuss?'

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- Call it globalization gone crazy, nationalistic nonsense or just a storm in a coffee cup.

The opening of a Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City is brewing a storm in China, with outraged local media reporting that 70 percent of people would rather not sip the American chain's frappuccinos in the footsteps of the Son of Heaven.

"This is no different from slapping China's 1.2 billion people and 5,000-year traditional culture in the face," said the China Consumer Journal. "Some people's anger is no different from their feelings when our embassy was bombed."

U.S.-bashing has been in vogue since American warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, triggering an outpouring of fury in Beijing.

But the media backlash against Starbucks took officials at the 600-year-old Forbidden City by surprise. Now they are considering revoking the coffee chain's one-year license after just two months in business.

"The pressure from the media was far greater than we expected," said Chen Junqi, an official of the Palace Museum, as the former residence of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors is now known. "There are only two ways to solve this: to wait until the contract expires or to prematurely revoke it."

Nor is Starbucks alone. Kentucky Fried Chicken will be booted out of Beihai Park, another Imperial site in the city center, when its lease expires in 2002. And McDonald's recently removed its golden arches from outlets by Tiananmen Square.

"It's about a certain conflict and misunderstanding between China and the West," Chen said.

The moves reflect China's ambiguous attitude about growing Western economic and cultural influence and its own identity. Young Chinese crave Western brand names and visas but Communist officials frequently rant at what they call decadent Western culture and "hegemonism" in world affairs.

China officially condemns the imperial era as corrupt and feudal, but most Chinese boast proudly of their 5,000-year history and regard the Forbidden City as its cultural heart. And for all the talk about preserving China's cultural relics, city planners have torn down thousands of old courtyard houses to make way for Western-style skyscrapers and malls.

But few would have thought a tiny coffee bar in the corner of an existing souvenir shop could whip up such a froth.

Testing the waters

The museum's management says it expected none of this when it decided to upgrade facilities for the 5 million Chinese and 1 million foreigners who visit each year. "We just wanted to throw a stone and watch the ripples, to test the waters," said Chen.

They awarded a contract in September to Meida Coffee Co., which owns the Starbucks franchise for northern China, over two other firms that Chen declined to name. But a survey by popular Chinese Internet portal showed 70 percent of those interviewed were opposed to having any sort of coffee shop in the Forbidden City.

"Now Starbucks has marched straight into the holy site to compete with ancient oriental civilization," said the Beijing Weekend newspaper.

The shocked museum demanded the outlet take down two Starbucks signs and is now reviewing the license. "I can understand the public's feelings," said Chen. "And I am very moved that so many people care about our cultural buildings."

Visitors: 'What's the fuss?'

But the museum's own survey showed more than 50 percent of visitors were in favor of the coffee outlet, he said. "The problem is many people think it's a huge Starbucks cafe with big signs like the ones on the street. We'd never allow that."

In fact, several tourists on a recent visit to the Forbidden City said they had not even noticed the Starbucks. Others were grateful for a chance to ward off the winter cold.

"I don't see what the fuss is about," said Liu Ying, 24, from Shanghai, warming her hands on a cappuccino as she teetered on platform heels through the Forbidden City's vast courtyards. "I think it's a good chance to show how open and cosmopolitan China has become," she said.

But for some, it is a matter of principle. "What will happen next?" asked Yao Hong, 61, a retired engineer visiting the site. "We'll have a McDonald's here and a Kentucky Fried Chicken there. Why couldn't they open a Chinese tea shop?"

Starbucks insists its outlet does not impinge on the site's atmosphere. "Starbucks strives to respect the local cultural heritage in every country where it does business," said Pedro Man, president of Starbucks Coffee Asia Pacific Ltd.

"With regard to the Forbidden City store, it was a landmark location and we worked closely with Forbidden City Museum authorities to respect the historical relevance of the site."

ironically, the controversy over what is probably Starbucks' smallest outlet in China has generated more publicity than the rest put together.

"They win either way," said Chen. "There'll be plenty of publicity whether it closes or stays open."

And if Chen had his own way? "I like Chinese tea," he said. "Coffee makes me feel uncomfortable."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Many Chinese want Western companies to be forbidden from ancient home
November 28, 2000
Visions of China
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