Let 1,000 Starbucks Bloom

It had to happen. Jokes about Starbucks’ ubiquity have become, well, ubiquitous, much like the coffee chain itself — so it was only a matter of time before a Starbucks outlet opened in Beijing’s Forbidden City. However, as the Financial Times reports, the Forbidden City Starbucks is facing a backlash, “following online protests sparked by a patriotic polemic published by a TV anchorman on his personal blog.”

Irrational? Yes. For a country reputedly confident thanks to its robust economic growth and growing international stature, it seems petty to get worked up about this as an “affront to Chinese culture.” Indeed, as FT reporter Mure Dickie notes:

It is unclear why Starbucks is drawing so much online ire now, given that US card company American Express actually has a bigger brand presence in the palace through its sponsorship of explanatory signs.

Starbucks’ Forbidden City branch has, by contrast, gradually lowered its profile in the palace in recent years, and its outlet — highly unusually — now has no external signage at all.

Yet this may be indicative of a dark side of globalization: With China opening to the world, it may have acquired a taste for a most unhealthy Western export: the culture of umbrage (whose most perverse expression may be campus speech codes). How else to explain similar reactions to other perceived “affronts”?

The coffee shop chain is only the latest foreign brand to be hit by a nationalist backlash in China.

Beijing in 2004 banned a Nike sports shoe commercial that featured a US basketball star battling and beating a kung-fu master and a dragon.

In the same year, criticism from internet users forced an apology from the creators of a Nippon Paint advert that featured a dragon slipping down a pillar, something also judged an insult to China’s trademark mythological beast.

And then last week, U.S. gum manufacturer Wrigley pulled a TV ad it ran in Russia, which featured the Chinese national anthem as the music. Well, that may be understandably offensive to a nation, but there’s a very bright spot in all this: Hostile reactions have not gone beyond loud albeit peaceful denunciations. That’s definite progress, considering how such “affronts” were handled in an earlier era.