An online campaign initiated by a television host to drive Starbucks out of the Forbidden City has won the backing of more than half a million netizens, who see the presence of the coffee chain in the heart of Beijing as an insult to Chinese culture.
Ever since Starbucks set up the outlet in 2000, it has courted controversy; and the new debate was triggered by Rui Chenggang, anchorman on the English channel of CCTV.
He wrote in his popular blog that "it is not globalizing, but trampling Chinese culture" to have a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, a symbol of Chinese civilization.
He added that more than 300 multinational CEOs he had interviewed including Microsoft boss Bill Gates were surprised at the commercialization of the landmark.
Rui said he met the Starbucks CEO Jim Donald at a summit in Yale University, and suggested he relocate the outlet.
However, Donald said the decision was made by his predecessor; and that the chain was invited by the Forbidden City to open an outlet.
Rui said he plans to write another letter to Donald, telling him that the company's withdrawal would win more respect from, and more patronage of, Chinese.
His blog attracted 530,000 hits and comments have flooded the Web. Many called the outlet a "disgrace" and the Palace Museum, the administrative organ of the Forbidden City, a "slave of money".
But the museum's spokesman, Feng Cheng'en, said part of the shop's rent is used for conservation. "The outlet has not done any damage, and blends in well with the surroundings," he told China Daily yesterday.
"We allowed it because we wanted to have more international standard service provided."
There are several Chinese restaurants in the Forbidden City and a dozen stands selling instant coffee. The museum received 8.76 million visitors last year, including 1.6 million foreigners.
The museum can have the eating and drinking facilities, said Zhou Lin, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "There is no Chinese law or international convention that says a World Heritage site should not have good restaurants or coffee shops."
Chen Yu, a conservation expert at the National Museum of China, said: "The Forbidden City is a heritage of the world. It doesn't matter if the coffee shop is American, British or Ethiopian as long as it is harmless."
Before Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken also suffered from a clash of cultures. The American fast food chain opened an outlet in the Beihai Park, a royal garden neighbouring the Forbidden City, in 1993, but had to move out in 2002 after the contract expired as a result of public objections.
(Photo source:Google/Starbucks in Forbidden City)