Starbucks and the City: Petitioning on the Web
In other circumstances, I would cry 'nationalism' but in this case I'm with the Chinese. To have a Starbucks in the middle of the Forbidden City is indeed sacriligious (though in other senses it was an apt symbol of globalization, and was a warm place to take refuge in Beijing's sub-zero temperatures when I visited in January 2004).
Between the lines, there is a subtext here, that of the growing power of civil society via the Internet. Petitioning is in fact an age-old method used by the Chinese masses to address those in authority. It doesn't always work, of course: the Tiananmen protestors tried petitioning before turning to civil disobedience with the bloody consequences that followed. But they did that because the petition was ignored.
And the web offers opportunities for low-key mass protest petitioning like never before. Taking Starbucks out of the Forbidden City is trivial in itself, as were various recent campaigns against dog licensing etc.. But on the other hand, campaigns against dams and pollution etc. which directly impinge upon local and central government jusrisdiction - have been rather successful. My recent paper on EU-China relations (which will be published here in due course) deals with the grass-roots democracy that the 'non-political' protest movement is engendering.
As the web grows in popularity, the authorities may need to come up with ways to deal with this subtle but effective manifestation of people power. It is only a matter of time before web petitions turn to more serious issues, and if the people see they are being ignored then they can more easily join forces via their Internet networks to try something else.
The trigger was a blog entry posted on Monday by Rui Chenggang, a TV anchorman, who called for a web campaign against the outlet that, he wrote in his blog, "tramples over over Chinese culture".
According to local media, half a million people have signed his online petition and dozens of newspapers have carried prominent stories about the controversy. "The Starbucks was put here six years ago, but back then, we didn't have blogs. This campaign is living proof of the power of the web", said Rui. "The Forbidden City is a symbol of China's cultural heritage. Starbucks in a symbol of lower middle class culture in the west. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.