About a year ago, we reported on a strange sight in the Forbidden City. It was strange only because of its location in a World Heritage Sight. Lord knows, it would not be strange to see one of these anywhere else. They are so ubiquitous that the Onion once quipped, “New Starbucks Opens in Rest Room of Existing Starbucks.”
At the time, I thought that the Forbidden City Starbucks was out of place. I never thought the problem existed in the coffee shop itself. I only objected to the sign. When people visit a major tourist attraction, the expect to be able to buy food and drink. For a site as big as the Forbidden City, that kind of convenience is a necessity. Someone will get a contract to cater the palace, whether it's Starbucks, or some mom and pop shop.
The problem isn't commerce, the problem is advertising. It's not appropriate for Starbucks to put a sign in the window, or to use its presence in the Forbidden City to advertise itself. If Starbucks took down the sign on the window, I thought, I would have no problem with it. I assumed that the massive chain would never agree to open a store without a sign, so that solution would never work. The aesthetic dissonance would remain.
Earlier this year, the Forbidden City Starbucks started getting a lot of attention. Rui Chenggang took on the Forbidden City Starbucks as a personal crusade. Using his own blog (available at ESWN in translation), and his celebrity as a CCTV news anchor, Rui built a campaign to kick Starbucks out of the palace. Rui even confronted Jim Donald, Starbucks' 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.”
Personally, I think that Rui has the wrong target. He doesn't realize that Starbucks would open outlets in the Taj Mahal, Versailles or Buckingham Palace within seconds of getting permission. Rui should have been criticizing the authorities within the Forbidden City who allowed Starbucks to move in. On the other hand, maybe that is exactly what he was doing. He was just voicing his criticisms in a politically sensitive way.
And apparently, Rui was successful. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Beijing authorities . . . would decide by June whether the coffee shop could stay.”
A few weeks ago we returned to the Forbidden City. Starbucks was still there, but to my surprise they that taken down their sign. If it were up to me, I would just let them stay, since they are willing to be discreet. We will wait and see whether the powers that be will be so tolerant.
And on that same, recent trip to the Forbidden City, we were shocked to see this little display in a different section of the palace. I don't expect to see Rui Chenggang blogging about this one. An anti-LaVazza campaign won't get you into the Wall Street Journal.