Saturday, 14 July 2007

Starbucks and the Forbidden City - Lessons for Liberal Internationalists

I am not completely surprised to hear that finally, after a significant amount of pressure, Starbucks has finally been effectively asked to leave the Forbidden City (Gugong) in Beijing. However before we all cheer at an major American multinational has being humbled there are some quite important underlying lessons which need to be borne in mind from this episode.

Firstly, official Chinese sanction must have been given to Rui Chenggang to wage his campaign against Starbucks. Rui is a high profile media personality in China and you don't usually get into such a position unless you are seen as "safe" by the Chinese Communist Party (typically meaning membership cards for high profile positions only). Rui criticised the Starbucks cafe on the grounds that it "trampled on Chinese Culture".

Such statements show quite clearly that the Chinese have not really moved forward from nationalism, and particularly economic nationalism, at all. This should be somewhat worrying preceding the Olympic Games. Far from opening up the country, the Games appear to be stoking nationalist sentiment. There is also little evidence of any positive moves on human rights either. Quite the opposite.

The second lesson to be learned is that official discourse in China is still far from embracing any genuine form of liberal approach to international relations. This should cause concern to those who hope for a democratic big bang. Instead, the likelihood is that any "democratic" government in China would attempt to outdo it's rivals on who would best stand up for China on the world stage in the event of a Communist collapse. It would even be likely if the Communist Party split into two competing factions contesting elections as one Chinese commentator has suggested as an approach to rooting out inherent corruption in the Communist Party power structures.

Liberal democracy in mainland China seems, regrettably, a long way off as this episode demonstrates.

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