Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Starbucks gets the boot, but don't blame it on Mao





[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine, is the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times."]

Mao Tse-tung used to celebrate "contradictions" as the driving force behind history. So what would he make of the contradictory pulls shaping Chinese politics today?

Consider two recent news stories: One on the closing of a Starbucks at the edge of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the other an open letter criticizing Communist Party leader Hu Jintao.

Each, in a curious way, can be linked to Mao. And each says something unexpected about China.

The shuttered Starbucks is a stone's throw from the spot where Mao stood in 1949 to announce the founding of the People's Republic. A giant, iconic portrait of Mao now hangs there, at the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

But the closing of the Starbucks had nothing to do with reverence for Mao. It came after months of Internet campaigning and protest that the coffee chain's presence "undermined the solemnity of the former imperial palace and trampled over Chinese culture," according to China Daily, an official English-language newspaper.

As for the letter to Hu Jintao, the link to Mao is cleaner: It was posted on the Web site Maoflag.net.

Signed by 17 retired government officials, the letter chastised the current leadership for legalizing private ownership of property and allowing entrepreneurs into the Communist Party.

It pointed to a recent scandal over a brick factory's use of enslaved labor as evidence of capitalism's malevolence: "We urge the party to take the evil brick kiln incidents ... as the straw that broke the camel's back and as a warning to mobilize people and correct the party's mistaken path."

What contradictions do these stories reveal?

Americans might be tempted to stress the role of the Internet. Commentators ranging from former President Bill Clinton to George Will say the Web is pushing China inevitably toward liberal capitalism, but here it is being used in the opposite way: To pressure a Seattle multinational corporation and to encourage the party that Mao once led to go back to its anti-capitalist roots.

Mao might have focused on a different contradiction.

While both protests seem to be attacks on global capitalism, the Starbucks flap had nothing to do with upholding the ideals of communism or the sanctity of the party.

The man who spearheaded the Internet drive against the Starbucks shop, a state television newscaster named Rui Chenggang, favors the opening of China's economy and its integration into the globalized economy. He and his supporters don't object to Starbucks' presence in China. They just don't want it in the Forbidden City, which they consider a sacred national icon.

But Mao loathed the Forbidden City, seeing the imperial palace as a despicable symbol of feudal oppression. In that iconic portrait hanging by the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao faces not toward the palace, which is now a museum, but away from it, toward Tiananmen Square.

If Beijing had to have a Starbucks, imagining the chairman's view, it might be best that the representative of decadent capitalist consumerism be in the very spot where the shuttered coffee shop was, at a palace that reminds the Chinese people of the decadent lifestyles of vile imperial rulers.

At the very least, the Maoflag.net posting and the Starbucks protest show that today's China is home to multiple and confusing visions of national pride. Which traditions are worthy of protection inspires a complex debate in today's China.

Perhaps the authors of the open letter on Maoflag.net should look to Shanghai, where a Starbucks has taken root in the posh entertainment and shopping complex called Xintiandi, or New Heaven and Earth.

That Starbucks is right around the corner from the place where, according to the official history of Chinese communism, Mao and his comrades held their party's first major congress in 1921.

The first party congress site is home to various hagiographic displays. One boasts a wax figure of a Christ-like Mao speaking to a group of fellow early communists who are arrayed around a table much like the apostles in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

Surely the chairman would view that site as a much more proper symbol of the nation than the Forbidden City -- and the nearby Starbucks a greater affront.

As Jonathan Spence points out in his admirable biography, "Mao Zedong," the chairman liked the notion of certain developments turning the world upside down, so that the high became low and the sacred profane. But to have the New China he founded become a place where an old imperial palace is seen as holier than a site linked to his revolutionary activities -- well, that would doubtless seem to Mao one turn of the wheel too many.


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Paul Mocker - 8/13/2007

of $1.38 if you bring your own little red cup. ;)


George Robert Gaston - 8/13/2007

Perhaps some party official got charged full boat for the bitter blend. During the Cultural Revolution they would have pulled the manager out of the store and sent him/her off for “reeducation” for the crime of charging too much for a bad cup of java.

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