In the Forbidden City, the Chinese emperors' inner sanctum in centuries past, a walled enclave within a walled enclave within a walled enclave, an architectural symbol of Chinese insularity (and just a stone's throw from Tien-a-men Square) there is... You guessed it...
As proof for skeptics, I offer this photograph of the very spot, taken by me one week ago.
Our cheerful local guide gave us a tour of the Forbidden City, but frowned when I suggested that this Starbucks was where the emperor used to hang out with the empress when they were dating. A nice fellow, he rushed us past this particular landmark. Other Americans in our tour group, an upscale bunch from Los Angeles (all of whom I liked), expressed dismay at the presence of this Starbucks in particular and Starbucks' in general throughout China. (They are in every city I've visited). It is almost mandatory, these days, for cultured individuals to express digust over the proliferation of Starbucks and, indeed, over any popular American export (MacDonald's, Burger King, Coca Cola, etc.)
It fell to me, the cretinous economist, to defend the supposedly indefensible: MacDonald's in Beijing and Starbucks in the Forbidden City.
None of us liked the food we were served on this trip. Our guide chose expensive restaurants that catered to westerners and wealthy Chinese. We liked the food ordinary Chinese people ate. We liked the steamed dumplings served on the street, and spicy noodle soup, and the clay-pot rice. To our guide, this food was not special enough. It was low-class food. He did not approve of this food and would not take us to these places.
In a word, we had peasant tastes.
Picture now, the Chinese person who hears that a MacDonald's is opening in Beijing. He is curious. He goes there to find out what kind of food Americans eat. He discovers that MacDonald's food is fun, genuinely fun. (The vast majority of customers you see at a MacDonalds in China are local people.) He does not eat at MacDonald's every day, nor does he make hamburgers a major component of his diet. But he enjoys going to MacDonald's and his children like it too. I have talked to a number of Chinese about MacDonald's, and this is the story I hear over and over again.
They like American peasant food.
Who am I to deny him that pleasure? The pompous guide who does not want me to like authentic Chinese peasant food (preferring that I consume expensive and less popular cuisine) is no less a proponent of class distinctions than the cultured American tourist who bemoans the presence of MacDonald's in Beijing.
An identical argument holds for Starbucks. I see young Chinese in Starbucks all over the place in China. They read, they study, they work on laptop computers, they meet for romantic trysts or they show up to relax and get away from things for a while. They like Starbucks for the same reason Americans like Starbucks. Why deny them this? Why insist that they should prefer something less popular, something less emblematic of American tastes?
I celebrate the Starbucks in the Forbidden City. I celebrate it because I love eating Chinese food that is popular with the common people and delight in the notion that Chinese do the same with American food. And I celebrate it because I can imagine no more appropriate metaphor for a nation in transition. Western tastes, western habits of behavior are no longer forbidden, even in the Forbidden City.
A nation that opens itself to the tastes and habits of foreigners, that allows its citizens to consume what they choose, when they choose, where they choose, is moving away from totalitarianism and toward freedom. Consumers appreciate Starbucks. They like the coffee and they like the experience. These days the people telling consumers what they should and should not like are not the rulers of communist China, not the former totalitarians...
They are western intellectuals who scorn the tastes of commoners. Foremost among them, I've noticed, are university professors.
How fortunate that no one ever listens to them.