Here’s another example of a story that started out small and then exploded into a global news item over the past couple of days: McClatchy Washington Bureau | 01/16/2007 | Campaign under way to evict Starbucks from Forbidden City. At first, I passed on it — wanting to give the tiresome Starbucks issue a rest here. But then the story quickly snowballed from a targeted online protest fueled by a popular TV anchorman, from CCTV in China, to what is now a global story being covered by everyone from the International Herald Tribune to the BBC.
In short, five years ago (just months after my last visit there) Starbucks opened a low-profile coffee shop within the walls of the famed Forbidden City, China’s former imperial palace. The arrangement, while always controvertial, coexisted somewhat peacefully while the money rolled in, KFC did not follow Starbucks’ lead into the Unesco World Heritage site, and tourists got their double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato fix.
Today things are different. For one, China is much more self-aware of its own culture relative to that of world capitalism — particularly with next year’s coming Beijing Olympic Games, where the China will get its long-awaited wish for the world stage and a chance to claim national respect and admiration. (Being in Beijing during their campaigning to host the 2008 Olympics, I cannot emphasize this motivation enough — this is a nation that feels globally slighted with something to prove.) What’s also different is that the the Forbidden City is up for a redesign plan in the next several months, thus opening a window for Chinese citizens to influence policy. With local headlines like “speculation has been building that Starbucks will follow a longline of disgraced eunuchs into exile from the palace as soon as its lease expires,” you know the debate is hot.
As for the local angle, this story represents a nation-sized version of globalization’s perils for Main Street — i.e., what happens to local culture when corporate big box chains take over the landscape? It would be easy to paint Starbucks as the bad guy in this story — particularly since they embody a once grand idea for good coffee since run horribly amok by an out-of-control growth strategy. But I’m taking Starbucks’ side in this case. This will make more sense when I write about recent coffee experiences in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where anti-corporate zoning policies have resulted in poor local coffee standards and the proliferation of substandard Starbucks affiliates. Not altogether unlike the state of quality coffee in China.
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