Friday, January 26, 2007

Should Starbucks be Allowed in the Forbidden City?

The presence of Starbucks inside China’s Forbidden City museum has always been a convenient source of lazy ironic commentary for travelers to the nation’s capital. “Would anyone put a Starbucks in the Pyramids of Egypt?” or “Wait, isn’t China communist (smirk).” But lately the subject has stirred up a lot of attention in the Chinese media and on the internet. CCTV anchorman, Rui Chenggang, originally started the anti-Starbucks-in-the-Forbidden City movement on his blog, which has already attracted nearly a million hits. Popular opinion certainly favors throwing Starbucks out of the Forbidden City. But there has been an upwelling of contrarian sentiment as well.

For more enlightenment on this issue I turned to Sina blogger Zhou Kecheng who tends to keep interesting perspectives on China’s popular issues of the week.

Who put Starbucks in the Forbidden City? The consumers, that’s who. People could probably think up ten thousand reasons why Starbucks shouldn’t be allowed in the Forbidden City, but there will always be a selection of people who will support Starbucks’s presence in the museum. They embrace Starbucks’s entrance into the Forbidden City with their own actions. No matter what they are saying, if they buy coffee at the Starbucks in the Forbidden City, they are supporting its presence there.

Of course the real question is: do we want Starbucks out of the palace? If we do not force Starbucks out, the CCTV TV anchors will certainly be unhappy. If we ask them to leave, then people will not be able to relax with a coffee in the museum. Certainly people were willing to drink coffee in the Forbidden City to begin with.

Some people say that Starbucks’s presence sullies the “spirit” of the ancient palace. But I think that there is a real contradiction here. If you say that western things pollute the “spirit” of the museum, then let me see you also get rid of light bulbs, air conditioners, and water pipes. Don’t think I’m just arguing for the sake of arguing. I just want to say that what unimportant things have entered the Forbidden City? Who gets to decide what does and does not enter the Forbidden City?

I have not seen any answers. Who does the Forbidden City belong to? Does it belong to “all the Chinese people?" If Zhang San likes to drink coffee in the Forbidden City then he will be upset when you drag Starbucks out. If Starbucks remains there, then Li Si thinks that it is a stain on Chinese traditions and he’s not satisfied!

Clearly Zhang San can not decide whether Starbucks enters the Forbidden City, Li cannot either. Even if “all Chinese people” decide to defer this decision to the State, then there will still be criticisms with the final decisions.

Do you want to end the controversy? Do we want to avoid similar questions? The solution is simple: clarify the issue of ownership.

That’s right. Like all state-owned assets, we should clarify issues of the Forbidden City’s ownership. In other words, we should sell the Forbidden City! We could sell it to private persons, private enterprises, public companies, even foreign nationals and companies.

It doesn’t matter who we sell it to. What is important is that we sell it, and its ownership is clarified. That way the Forbidden City will probably receive even better protection then it does now. I believe that anyone willing to spend huge amounts of money to buy the Forbidden City will take excellent care of it. At the very least they will be better then a bunch of muddleheaded bureaucrats. This is an important point, and I hope all those “protect the people’s cultural heritage” folks are listening.

I’m just bringing this up in passing today. As to why I think we should sell the Forbidden City, wait a couple days for my detailed exposition.

One last thing, though. I know that most people won’t accept my suggestion. But, I’m also a citizen of this country. If the Forbidden City really belongs to “all Chinese people” then I want to stand up and give my opinion on this property. If I do not even have the right to my own opinion, then do not fool yourself into thinking that you will get something good out of this “state asset that belongs to everybody.”

There are some interesting omissions here. For one, Zhou does not acknowledge the anti-Starbucks-in-National Treasure issue from the perspective that Starbucks brings crass commercialism into a major Chinese cultural site. He recognises Starbucks only in terms of "western influence," not a commercial one. Maybe he'll cover that in a more detailed future post.

For more information, here is a random western take on the story through Bloomberg.'s link to the subject is here.

The Wall Street Journal has a nice bit on this story too. They turn it into a China-blog story. Thanks to for the link.


Chengora said...

That certainly is an interesting take on the Starbucks question. Private enterprise and property rights were not the angle I expected this guy to take.

That said, I wonder how they do it in other countries and in other museums. I can't seem to recall private businesses running in museums in most of the places I've been to. Well, that's not quite true. I've seen either catering firms who run the entire food section of a particular museum or simply museum staff themselves. But never chain stores.

I imagine that's partly because of the issue of profit. If the chain store is able to acquire its sales in part through the (publicly funded) museum, should then the museum receive some of the profit, above and beyond rent (or the cost could simply be folded into that). But it would simply be easier for the museum to run that kind of outfit itself, with the profits going directly to it. There is also the issue of the captive audience to consider, in that museum-goers don't have another choice, and I imagine business is therefore lucrative.

And there is of course the need for public transparency and accountability in museum financing.

But, then I have to admit that I never eat museum food, although I was really tempted one day at the National Air and Space Museum, which had an annex to a non-publicly funded area, where McDonald's was selling food. Now, I never eat at McD's, but the comparison was stark. I wouldn't even consider eating museum food. But McD's however... Maybe there is something to be said for private restaurants at museums.

Unless you do it like the Museum of the American Indian, which has awesome food.

Jonny America said...

Yeah, as far as I know, the museums in the US are funded by private foundations. Well... I guess I could be wrong. I admit, I know little about museum management.

Personally, I could understand not wanting a Starbucks outlet in one of China's flagship tourist and cultural attractions. Than again, what else would you put there? Perhaps one of those tea places you find in other Chinese monuments/parks. I'm sure that one of the things people like about Starbucks in the Forbidden City, is that they know exactly what kind of quality they will be getting, and they know that everything offered will conform to a standard price. Unlike the tea places I just mentioned that charge 50 bucks for a cup of dirty water. So yeah, I can understand the attraction of having Starbucks there too. Its just too bad there are not any better options. I'm sure the museum could put together something more interesting or 'authentic' to take the place of a Starbucks franchise. But, the management is probably too corrupt and/or incompetent to do so. Zhou alluded to this a little bit in his blog entry.