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China's growing blogosphere turns on US coffee icon

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Starbucks' boss baristas must have known trouble was brewing when they first hung their forest-green logo outside a crimson pavilion in the Forbidden City.

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And sure enough, when the arch-symbol of globalization set up shop in the heart of China's most famed historic monument six years ago, Chinese "internauts" did indeed spread their injured dignity all over the Web in a flood of protest.

The world's largest purveyor of "frappuccinos" weathered that PR storm by the tactical expedient of taking down its sign and adopting a more discreet way of doing business. But that was then.

Now another Web-launched tide of criticism is washing over the small cafe tucked in beside the Hall of Preserving Harmony. And with the Chinese blogosphere more than 30 times bigger today than it was last time the latte hit the fan, Starbucks has a much tougher problem on its hands.

"Some things can be changed by public opinion in Chinese cyberspace" says Hu Yong, a TV editor who writes a blog himself. "There are precedents."

The current flap began last week, when a well-known anchorman on Chinese state TV, Rui Chenggang, posted an entry on his personal blog calling for Starbucks to be evicted from its corner of the Forbidden City. The coffee shop's presence "tramples on Chinese culture," he fulminated, and constitutes "an insult to Chinese civilization."

Since that post went up, Mr. Rui's site has registered more than half a million hits and collected thousands of messages of support for his position, the TV personality says.

One, signed Shi Ershao, gives a flavor of the bitter dregs the site serves to America's favorite coffee roaster: "What a humiliation for China," the message reads. "Once it was military invasion, now it is economic invasion. Why can't they just drink tea?"

Authorities in charge of the Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors over 500 years, originally allowed Starbucks to join other food concessions in 2000 to help finance an extensive renovation. Now palace curators also appear to be wondering whether the chain has overstayed its imperial welcome.

"The museum is working with Starbucks to find a solution by this June in response to the protests," the official Xinhua news agency quoted a museum spokesman as saying. "Whether or not Starbucks remains depends upon the entire design plan" that renovators are drawing up.

"I did not expect this response," says Rui, a 29-year-old rising star in Chinese TV who spent last year as a fellow at Yale. "It just shows the power of the Internet."

That power is growing. 123 million Chinese were online at the latest count, and 17.5 million of them maintain blogs that another 75 million netizens read, according to a survey last August by the official "China Internet Network Information Center."

The appeal of blogs in a country where the traditional media are strictly censored by the government which uses them to propagate approved information and opinions, lies in both the relative freedom they enjoy, and in their interactivity.

Even for those not especially interested in politics, "blogs tell me about things that are hot, like pop stars or new movies, and I can tell other people what I think," says Qiao He, a young Chinese teacher. "I can speak my own mind, and maybe somebody will reply."

Freedom and interactivity have typically not been the Chinese government's favorite flavors, but cyberspace is never easy to police.

"The government still really wants to control opinions in the blogosphere, but the essence of the blog phenomenon is that it is uncontrollable," says Hong Bo, a well-known blogger whose site focuses on technology and Internet issues.

Most Chinese blogs are innocuous enough. Many recount personal stories or opine about entertainment stars – some noted blogs are actually written by the stars themselves. Almost all blogs are carried on a handful of portals that are very cautious about what their bloggers say online.

"The portals are businesses, so they try to be on the safer side," says Xiao Qiang, head of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley. "They are highly cautious and won't promote anything politically risky."

If you know where to look, however, you can find fierce criticism of government officials for a range of sins from corruption to stupidity to political repression.

Not that the criticism of Starbucks fell into those categories. The portal that carries Rui's blog, Sina.com, put his post on its homepage and thus catapulted it to prominence because "it touches nationalist sentiment so there is no political risk," says Mr. Qiang.

"This had all the right ingredients" for a good scandal, Mr. Hu adds. "It pits a transnational corporation against Chinese traditions, Rui is an influential media guy himself, it was bound to snowball."

Rui insists that he did not intend to launch a campaign, and that his post became a big story only because traditional mainstream media picked it up. That is becoming a pattern, says Qiang. "Bloggers create the issues, and the mainstream press follows," he says. "The blogosphere is already setting the agenda."

The blogosphere has even set the government agenda on occasion. An explosion of Internet outrage at the 2003 death of a young man in Guangzhou at the hands of the police prompted a change in the law governing the rights of homeless people, for example.

"That will happen more and more," predicts Mr. Bo. "The 130 million people online are generally well off and their opinions are likely to influence real policy."

If that's the case, Chinese bloggers may have their work cut out for them. Another decidedly American firm made a little-noticed announcement last week: Dunkin' Donuts plans to enter the Chinese market this year.

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