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February 09, 2007

Chinese Resisting Starbucks

A web blog post by Rui Chenggang, an English news anchor with China’s CCTV-9, titled “Why Starbucks Needs to Get Out of the Forbidden City?”, has stirred heated debates among Chinese netizens and been picked up by China’s local and national media. According to the Beijing News , Rui believes that having a Starbucks within the Forbidden City makes a mockery of Chinese traditional culture because an icon of a foreign mass-consumption fast food culture is discordant with a sacred symbol of Chinese civilization. Covering over 7 million square feet and housing 1.5 million relics, treasures and artifacts spanning five thousand years of Chinese history, the nearly 600-year-old former Chinese imperial palace (now known as the Palace Museum) is China’s most comprehensive historical museum. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The Starbucks outlet is located close to the Hall of Military Eminence, where imperial military officials gathered as the Emperor held court. Perhaps that’s what makes it the company’s only store that is un-mappable. The same newspaper article quotes Rui publicly confronting Jim Donald, Starbucks Chairman and CEO, at the 2006 Yale CEO Leadership Summit. “I wonder if you have plans to open stores in Taj Mahal, Versailles or Buckingham Palace,” Rui said. “But, first, please remove your outlet from the Forbidden City.”

Donald responded to Rui’s letters of protest, writing that Starbucks has shown “great sensitivity to, and respect for the heritage of the Forbidden City since it was invited to open a store there by museum officials six years ago.” Eden Woon, Starbuck’s Vice President for Greater China, tells the Beijing News, “As our contract with the museum has not expired, we have no plan to move out. Rui Chenggang’s proposal is only his personal opinion.”

Museum officials, though defensive, have taken note of the controversy. They tell the Beijing Morning Post that negotiations are underway between the museum and Starbucks, and expect the dispute to be resolved within the first half of this year. Amid the strong support of Rui’s stand on preserving national cultural integrity in the age of global integration, increasing questions are being raised about the management of China’s increasingly market-driven cultural institutions.

An article from China Daily reports that pressed by local dignitaries in 2003, a KFC outlet bid farewell to Beihai Park, an imperial garden in Beijing, after the expiration of a ten-year contract. Rui told the Beijing News that he hopes Starbucks will do the same. If Starbucks voluntarily moves out of the Forbidden City, he wrote in his blog, it will gain the heart-felt respect of the Chinese people who deeply love their traditional culture. He also notes that his personal protest is not a one-off occurrence. He believes that at present the West frequently misreads China, mostly due to the silence of the Chinese people. He says that he voices his opinion this time in order to help eliminate those misunderstandings, and will continue to do so in the future.

See related photo slideshow for this story.

Posted February 9, 2007 04:40 PM

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