Forbidden City

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China’s blogosphere/webworld/netnation or whatever is a fascinating, still evolving (maturing?) animal. When mobilized, China’s netizens can by collective effort accomplish noble ends. Take the case of Foxconn, a Taiwanese company with a factory in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. After two local journalists published an article questioning labor conditions in the factory (which made parts for Apple’s Ipod), Foxconn sued them personally for millions of dollars. A huge hue and cry resulted on the web and company backed down. Admirable. And yet, there are also plenty of cases of net vigilante-ism in which an individual has been tracked, identified and hounded. Famously, a cuckolded husband managed to have his wife’s lover’s tracked down by netizens.

If there was ever a demonstration of how China’s hundred odd million netizens can be rushed to judgment it must be the controversy about the Starbucks in the Forbidden City, the iconic former imperial palace complex at the center of Beijing that is one of the most potent symbols of Chinese greatness.This hare was started by an English-language news announcer on the government’s China Central Television named Rui Chenggang. Rui wrote in his blog last week complaining about the presence of the Starbucks inside the hallowed walls of the Forbidden City. Having a Starbucks there was ‘eroding Chinese culture,’ Rui wrote. It would be like having a Starbucks in the Louvre or at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, he later told a reporter. (There is a Starbucks next to the Louvre, though not actually inside the museum. And the reasons there aren’t any Starbucks in Egypt or India are pretty obvious: no one can afford to buy the coffee).

The appeal to nationalism, predictably enough, brought an avalanche of outrage. Rui’s blog received half a million hits, the Beijing News carried the story, Starbucks PR people made placating noises (there are already 200 outlets in China and the company aims to make the country its biggest market after the U.S., so they were ripe for the plucking) and various wangchong –networms as they are known– made knee-jerk nationalist comments. In fact, the outlet ,a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop with no sign outside, has been serving overpriced, coffee-flavored milk to gawking tourists for no less than six years. So why the sudden interest in the issue? Trotting out this lame duck (can ducks trot?) has certainly sparked an onrush of viewers to Rui’s blog and put his post on the front page of China’s most popular blog site, Anyway, regardless of motives or the merits of the argument (as the outlet is so discrete, I’m pretty agnostic, though there is something strange about having it right in the middle of the complex), the incident is a bracing reminder that combining emotive issues and the web in China can make a potent, potentially dangerous brew.

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