You have, no doubt, heard by now that Starbucks has closed its store in the Forbidden City. You may also have heard that Starbucks’ exit was fomented by a massive online campaign in China, sparked by a — wait for it — a blogger. Who knew bloggers had such power? Well, when you’re a blogger backed by the state’s own media arm… but that’s another story.
The story here is that, for Starbucks — one of the most iconic brands in the known universe — to lose the Forbidden City — one of China’s singular historic icons — well, that’s gotta smart. Even given the store’s low-key presence in the 600 year old Imperial Palace, it was an important symbol for Starbucks, and for China.
For Starbucks this landmark location was an anchor in the shifting tides of modern Chinese culture and a (relatively) safe harbor against China’s deep-seated ambivalence to Western-style capitalism. Quite simply the Forbidden City was an icon for an icon, a touchstone of Starbucks’ international ambitions.
For China, Starbucks’ presence was symbolic of nationalist China’s embrace — however adolescent and awkward — of Western commercial interests. It was a sign of the times seven years ago. It is — ominously — a sign of the times again, today.
To be clear, it was a rocky relationship from the start. When Starbucks opened the Forbidden City store — with a wary nod from Palace Museum officials — it was greeted with something less than open arms. Starbucks’ siren logo was quickly relegated to the interior of the store, only, to better placate concerned Beijingers. Starbucks so carefully camouflaged its presence, in fact, that enterprising folk were known to fleece tourists by guiding them to the “hidden Starbucks in the Forbidden City.” I suppose that’s a cultural exchange, of sorts.
Advocates for Starbucks’ expulsion from the Forbidden City have argued China’s right and responsibility to be stewards of its historic, national treasures and cultural history. Noble ideals, certainly… but ideals that are frequently couched in language that speaks of a growing nationalism fueled by China’s growing wealth and power in the global market.
Starbucks, which now has some 200 stores in mainland China, has set its sights on 20,000 stores internationally — thousands in China, alone. Given China’s mercurial moods, Starbucks may find that to be a daunting, even a… well, a forbidding task.