What? No latte?

A Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum, if you’d prefer) may be forced out, after a CCTV anchorman declared the coffee house “undermined the Forbidden City’s solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture,” on his blog.

Unlike all those souvenir stands, “art” exhibits and snackbars, which clearly exemplify the highest flowering of the Qing Dynasty.

I’ll admit, I was pretty appalled when I first heard that there was a Starbucks on the Imperial City grounds (though the article says it opened in 2000, I swear it was there in Dec. 1999, my first trip back to Beijing in 20 years). But when I actually saw the store, I couldn’t get too worked up about it. If you haven’t been there, the Starbucks is tucked into a small, traditional gallery, and is actually rather easy to miss.

Besides, it was freezing cold that day, and yeah, I had a double espresso, and I liked it.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

Haha. Yeah, I had the same experience. I couldn’t believe it, but then the coffee was nice. I also saw a kid do a number 2 right in the middle of one of the courtyards which seemed to undermine the solemnity pretty well.

January 19, 2007 @ 3:28 pm | Comment

It’s not the Starbucks that’s important in this story – it’s the way it got closed.

Between the lines, there is a subtext here, that of the growing power of civil society via the Internet. Petitioning is in fact an age-old method used by the Chinese masses to address those in authority. It doesn’t always work, of course: the TNMN protestors tried petitioning before turning to civil disobedience, with the bloody consequences that followed. But they did that because the petition was ignored.

And the web offers opportunities for low-key mass protest petitioning like never before. Taking Starbucks out of the Forbidden City is trivial in itself, as were various recent campaigns against dog licensing etc.. But on the other hand, campaigns against dams and pollution etc., which impinge upon local and central government jurisdiction, have also been successful.

As the web grows in popularity, the authorities may need to come up with ways to deal with this subtle but effective manifestation of people power. It is only a matter of time before web petitions turn to more serious issues, and if the people see they are being ignored then they can more easily join forces via their Internet networks to try something else.

January 19, 2007 @ 6:17 pm | Comment

What are they going to do about the Chinese hawkers and so forth that sell crap there? Oh, let me guess – they’re ok because they’re Chinese……….

January 19, 2007 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

This phenomenon of creating populist campaigns on the Chinese Internet is old news already – remember the Shanghai sex blogger, and the SKII skin cream scandals, all started on the BBS’s? What’s troubling is the irrationality of this campaign – the Starbucks was there for more than half a decade and never detracted from the F.C.’s sacred culture that I could tell. Certainly no more than the hawkers’ selling cheap souvenirs and Coke. But put it up on the Net, push enough buttons and, voila, you have an issue. The one binding factor prevalent in most of the Chinese causes du jour is nationalism: with Starbucks, its the unique sacredness of the Forbidden City. With the sex blogger, it was a foreigner defiling local girls. With the SKII, it was the ridiculous charge that P&G was intentionally dumping toxic moisturizer on China because we all hate the Chinese – in other words, the outsider is victimizing the Chinese. And that seems to work like a charm, pressing all the right buttons and moving people from passively sitting in front of their computers to taking action, picking up their pitchforks and running into the town square for a good lynching, be it Starbucks, P&G or a sex blogger who get lynched. An intriguing phenomenon, especially for those who (like me) obsessively watch how the media play on people’s emotions, fears and hot buttons.

It should be noted, we see a lot of this populist idiocy in America over non-threats like gay marriage. It’s not that hard to get people up in arms if you provoke their most irrational fears.

January 19, 2007 @ 8:33 pm | Comment

That Starbucks in the Forbidden City issue flared up once during my 1997-2001 stay in Beijing and, like Lisa, I went looking and looking hard) for it and found nothing more than a glorified coffee wagon like you’d see at a sports event or rock concert. At that time there was a full-on KFC branch in another nearby Beijing park (Beihai Gongyuar?) that I found quite shocking.

January 20, 2007 @ 12:01 am | Comment

What Richard said. I am interested as well in the rise of populist campaigns, but this isn’t one that give the phenonena a good name.

Also, as the article points out, the Starbucks was invited by the Palace Museum managers, who were desperately in need of funds to maintain the place.

January 20, 2007 @ 1:23 am | Comment

Like slim, I’ve heard so much about this, but to actually find the Starbucks, you really have to go on a hunt for it. The opposite is true of the souvenier shop/coffee shop with multiple Lavazza signs toward the back of the Forbidden City (right before you enter the gardens I believe). To me, the KFC Beihai/Starbucks Forbidden City are two very different issues as Beihai just isn’t as revered. Plus, the KFC served the excellent purpose of a place to buy some food and have an impromptu “picnic” on one of the boats…

January 20, 2007 @ 3:12 am | Comment

Populist campaigns abound. Look at how we abolished alcohol in the U.S. for a while. How absynthe got banned around the world. How silicone breast implants became evil incarnate during the 80s and 90s.

We’re all good at being sheep.

Let’s all light our torches, grab our pitchforks, and head up to Frankenstein’s castle.

January 20, 2007 @ 7:24 am | Comment

Only if I can take a double macchiato to go…

January 20, 2007 @ 7:42 am | Comment

Richard, have you noticed that the new dems are trying to redefine the issue by proposing anti discrimination bills instead of focusing on the divisive gay marriage? Similarly, on abortion they are focusing on “reducing the number of abortions” mainly through education and prevention instead of on the black and white life/choice. The thing that scares me about China is that there doesn’t seem to be a counter to these witch hunts. People who disagree would rather stay out of the issue entirely.

January 20, 2007 @ 10:59 am | Comment

Pha, that is exactly the point I was going to make but you beat me. That is the big difference in the way populist Internet crap flourishes in China and elsewhere. Here, there’s no counter, no reasoned response, or if there it it’s so meek it inevitably gets drowned out. The gay marriage nonsense – “it destroys the sanctity of marriage!” – was countered with reason and a lot of criticism. Engouh criticism, in fact, that the amendment died a quick death. Here the rumors often seem to go unchallenged, taking on a life of their own as they hysteria over the non-issue swells.

January 20, 2007 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

Man, this story’s everywhere. I’ll admit — I’m going to be writing about it for my column next week, because I’m too lazy to think of a proper topic on which to write in Chinese and it’s been a while since I wrote anything combative. My points:

* Rui Chenggang is right when he says that Starbucks has no place in the Forbidden City.
* He’s also a dick.
* Starbucks was invited, because the Palace Museum officials (a) needed money and (b) don’t really care that much about history.
* Historical preservation in China sucks.
* Starbucks could leave the Forbidden City tomorrow, and the Palace Museum would still be a third-rate museum. Upkeep ranges from shoddy to Disneyfied; signage is poorly translated if it’s translated at all; hawkers and rip-off artists assault you within and without; the museum collection itself consists of the stuff that the Kuomintang left behind after looting all of the really good stuff.
* Jesus Christ, people, your country is broken, your government sucks, your environment’s trashed, public morality is nonexistent and you can’t even browse the internet properly anymore! Go get up in arms about something that matters!

January 20, 2007 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

“* Jesus Christ, people, your country is broken, your government sucks, your environment’s trashed, public morality is nonexistent and you can’t even browse the internet properly anymore! Go get up in arms about something that matters!”

I kinda like you, Brendan! You and Mr. Tea have a lot in common…

January 20, 2007 @ 4:08 pm | Comment

Brilliant, Brendan, thanks for that. At last someone has the courage to say just how god-awful the F.C. museum and grounds and signage are – and the tourists smile and look in their guidebooks as they walk around while wondering why such a great site would be maintained so shabbily. If it’s so sacred, clean it up! Starbucks is the least of the FC’s worries.

January 20, 2007 @ 5:44 pm | Comment

I find it interesting how it hasn’t been mentioned that many of the signs (at least the english translations) in the Forbidden City have a sticker across the bottom that typically offer that they’re “Made Possible by the American Express Company.” I believe there are a few other sponsors, I think AIG is one, but I know many of the signs have the Amex tag.

It also hasn’t been pointed out that the Forbidden City has been undergoing a massive restoration project the past few years, where everytime I’m forced to go back, a new part is being worked on.

January 20, 2007 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

See Dave’s post above, Chengb02. Rui’s next targets are those Amex signs…

January 21, 2007 @ 8:50 am | Comment

People like Rui Chenggang embarrass the Chinese people. Of course, Starbucks, as a foreign company, is an easy target for gullible Chinese to attack.

How could Stabucks possibly get a location in the Forbidden City unless large numbers of Chinese high officials gave them the OK?

Rui Chenggang shows his pathetic, cowardly intentions by purposely avoiding asking the question of which Chinese government officials gave Starbuck the permission to open a shop in the Forbidden City. Of course not, because it would take courage to criticize the government. Courage is a quality he obviously doesn’t have.

Rui Chenggang believes he will gain a reputation as a great defender of Chinese dignity but all he did was point out the hypocrisy and gullibility of the Chinese masses who so easily fell for his trick.

Rui Chenggang actually embarrassed China by making China look silly and xenophobic. This is not a good image for the 2008 Olympics.

January 21, 2007 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

Ping pong, you’ve pretty much said it all! Exactly.

I just keep picturing this Rui character sitting in the make-up chair before his broadcast, having his hair styled…

January 22, 2007 @ 4:50 am | Comment

Starbucks could leave the Forbidden City tomorrow, and the Palace Museum would still be a third-rate museum. Upkeep ranges from shoddy to Disneyfied; signage is poorly translated if it’s translated at all; hawkers and rip-off artists assault you within and without; the museum collection itself consists of the stuff that the Kuomintang left behind after looting all of the really good stuff.

Les mots justes, Brendan – you’re absolutely right.

(But then again, I am [whisper] somewhat fond [/whisper] of Starbucks. It’s not Victrola, but it works in a pinch.)

January 23, 2007 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

I believe I owe Rui Chenggang an apology for the strong attack I made on his integrity. By saying that he was cowardly and lacked courage by not criticizing the officials who gave Starbucks the permission to open a shop in the Forbidden City.

I just read an essay by Rui Chenggang in which he strongly criticizes Chinese who make xenophobic attacks on Japan and all things Japanese.

This essay was not written by a “coward” or by a person who lacks integrity. To confront Chinese who blindly attack Japan is not the behavior of a person with no principles or courage.

I believe, if all the readers who posted negative comments about Mr. Rui would read his essay from September 30, 2006, they will see Mr. Rui cannot be easily labled.

I apologize to the readers and Mr. Rui for the strong words I used to describe Mr. Rui.

Rui Chenggang On Japan

January 23, 2007 @ 2:22 pm | Comment

Nausicaa, me too – I wasn’t kidding when I said I liked that double espresso. Being able to get a cup of Starbucks level coffee in China is one of those things that makes my life just a little nicer.

January 24, 2007 @ 3:50 am | Comment

Ping pong — agreed. It’s a good essay, and it’s nice to see a (kind of) prominent Chinese personality writing frankly about the 民族自卑感 that obtains here and motivates the occasional bursts of xenophobic ugliness. Good on him for writing it.

January 24, 2007 @ 4:07 pm | Comment

I want to comment on ping pong’s posts. I applaud pp’s appology after he/she found out the truth.

But I wonder why pp would first attack Rui with all the false and negative assumptions. It seems pp had already biased against someone who criticizes a foreign identity.

I wonder why pp said, Rui embarrassed all Chinese. pp can say Rui embarrassed him/herself, but no all Chinese. Rui does not and can not represent all Chinese. If some foreigners get a bad impression of Chinese due to Rui, then it’s their problem.

pp, your appology is a right thing to do, but I hope you can be more rational in the future.

January 26, 2007 @ 2:03 am | Comment


I watched the TV interview in which Rui made the comments about Starbucks.

At that time, I thought Rui was being cowardly and unfair to Starbucks by not asking which Chinese officials gave Starbucks the OK to set up the coffee shop in the first place.

My mistake was to assume Rui was as despicable as Yang Rui, another commentator on CCTV.

Later, after reading Rui Chenggang’s essay on Japan, I realized that my assumption about his intentions for questioning Starbucks may have been wrong.

ER, I thank you for your concern and paternalism. I will check with you first before I make any future postings.

January 26, 2007 @ 11:13 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.