Starbucks Evicted from The Forbidden City: Public Debates Analysis with Kantian Ethics Theory

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Culture is the spiritual entrustment of human beings. It is not only a heritage of tradition, but also a symbol of a country. With the rapid development of globalisation, more and more brands choose to develop in countries around the world, especially China, which is developing rapidly. In 2007, a controversy over the issue of Starbucks in the Forbidden City caught the public attention. The case started with Rui Chenggang, a CCTV anchor-man accused Starbucks of opening its branch to the Forbidden City via his blog. 'The Forbidden City is a symbol of China's cultural heritage. Starbucks in a symbol of lower middle class culture in the west. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.' (Watts, 2007)

However, this also ushered in new questions: What is the Chinese culture spirit? Why did Starbucks' actions cause the Chinese to react fiercely? This is not just a problem for Starbucks of how it should find a breakthrough point to sustain in this increasingly complex global business environment, whilst adapting to different cultures and moral standards in China. In the era of globalisation, 'the various civilisations and cultures formed by history have begun to separate from their roots. They have merged into the technological and economic world and into an empty sense doctrine.' (Jaspers, 2009)

This essay aims to critically evaluate views from the five main stakeholders who were involved in the debate, using the Immanuel Kant’s non-consequentialist theory, which exams on the reasoning and motivation behind actions opposed to their consequences. A brief yet precise Chinese history will be portrayed firstly, which acts as a crucial background and factor for the analysis subsequently. Moreover, this essay will explain the reasons why I support this Starbucks business expansion in the Forbidden City using the Kant’s theory, limitation of this theory will also be introduced afterwards. Lastly, the causation of this case will be clarified and potential suggestion towards the problem will be described.

In order to exam the case further, the Chinese culture and its meaning and the historical value to the Chinese citizens will be introduced firstly. Chinese are very proud of their own culture – they deeply believe that they have the qualifications and confidence to stand out when it comes to culture of a nation. China's cultural self-confidence comes from the time-honoured history and splendid civilisation that Chinese ancestors have created in the long human history. China has a history of 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilisation, (Eckholm, 2000) and it is known for one of the four great ancient civilisations. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period, and the Warring States Period, which were two of the early dynasties of China, the narratives and classics left by the Hundred Schools of Thought have almost covered all aspects of politics, economy, science and technology, military, which contributed heavily not just to Chinese culture but worldwide (Schaberg, 2001).

The Forbidden City is an epitome of the Chinese traditional forms and cultural norms. It is the most important cultural symbol to Chinese. As far as the ancient architecture of the Forbidden City is concerned, it is a world cultural heritage, and it is the largest and best-preserved ancient palace complex in the world. However, the Forbidden City is not an ordinary ancient building; it is an imperial palace. It not only embodies the excellent tradition and unique style of ancient Chinese architectural art, but also inherits the traditional forms and codes of ancient Chinese palaces, and reflects the Chinese design traditional philosophy. Additionally, the importance of the Forbidden City is because of it is the home 24 emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasty (Jarus, 2013), many important events in Chinese history took place here. Therefore, it is not easy to truly understand the value of the ancient buildings of the Forbidden City for foreigners, or even the Chinese themselves. Even the researchers at the Palace Museum continue to deepen their understanding of the value of the Palace Museum and its collections.

The main stakeholders involved in this case were: Starbucks; the Forbidden City; media; cultural relics protection experts and Chinese netizens.

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To begin with the first stakeholder, the former president and CEO of Starbucks Jim Donald replied to Rui Chenggang blog, mainly to clarify three points. Firstly, Starbucks was invited by China to open a branch in the Forbidden City in 200; Secondly, Starbucks opened this branch with a respect for Chinese cultural traditions; Lastly, Starbucks has made every effort to adapt this store to the surrounding cultural environment (Tian & Dong, 2010). From the perspective of the protection of cultural relics and the coordination of the landscape, Starbucks in the Forbidden City does seem to be uncoordinated, and it is not entirely unreasonable to ask it to move away. However, Kant would agree with this business decision as Starbucks was acting according to their own maxim, which was to expand their business. Starbucks is a global business chain and it is fair to say that they have created their formula of autonomy which is global expansion. Therefore, it is considered correct under the Kantian ethics theory. Nevertheless, Starbucks had claimed their intention of this expansion, the issue with this case was that it was unclear of their true intention. This is the weakness of the Kant’s theory - it is difficult to judge the level of “wrongness” of their behaviour, as there isn’t a clearly defined moral standard or ruler to Kantian theory. On the other hand, almost every company has performed unethical behaviours and it is difficult to discover the truth behind it – whether they are intentional or not. The same scenario applies to this case, it is almost impossible to judge if Starbucks carried out on the premise of knowing that this expansion plan was unethical to the Chinese. Additionally, in terms of its 'wreckage' of the cultural landscape of the Forbidden City, it is difficult to identify the differences of the shops around the Forbidden City that sell cigarettes, fruits, and snacks. The only mistake of Starbucks was that it was so famous and its foreign identity that it played the role of a strong intruder in this cultural conflict and caused a fierce rebound.

Secondly, according to Sina news (Guangming Wang, 2007), to deal with the public pressure, Feng Nai’en, the spokesman for the Palace Museum, stated that there were 1.6 million foreign tourists visiting the Forbidden City annually, many of whom had a need for coffee, and a substantial number of tourists wanted to solve the dining problem in the Forbidden City, which could also effectively extend the time of visiting the Forbidden City. The fast food stalls and Starbucks in the Forbidden City were generated under this premise. Through the investigation, they found that the existence of Starbucks met the needs of some visitors. The argument from the spokesman also fall into the category of ethical and reasonable based on the Kant’s theory. This is because his purpose was to satisfy visitors’ need to create quality experience for them, which benefit the palace at the same time as satisfactory customer service helps the palace to build a positive image to the publics worldwide. However, it is also possible that Kant would disagree with his argument. Even though his action was created by thinking from visitors’ perspective, potential impact that could bring to the palace was not considered. As a spokesman for the Palace Museum, it is arguable to state that he should put the palace as his priority. The main argument for Starbucks in the palace is that it ruins the representation of the whole palace. However, by allowing food stalls or cafés in the palace which includes Starbucks, there is a potential of litter creation, and in this case, does it not produce an even worse impact to the palace?

Furthermore, a commentator in Southern Metropolis suggested that “the fateful question of the coexistence of commercialisation with traditional culture surely cannot be solved by simply choosing one and rejecting the other” (Zhou, 2007) On the other hand, according to Dr Nyíri Pál (Nyíri, 2009), a famous news agency called Xin Jing Bao (New Beijing News) wrote: “If we simply see Starbucks moving into the Forbidden City as ‘foreign peddlers usurping the dignity of the heavenly dynasty,’ that is disrespecting both traditional Chinese culture and the rules of global business. Besides, we can hardly avoid discussing the fact that those who allowed Starbucks to move into the Forbidden City in the first place were, sadly, Chinese people themselves.” There are substantial amount of articles from Chinese media debating about this topic, and by evaluating from Kant’s perspective, every article can be ethical depends on what perspective it is coming from as all opinions are arose for a better solution.

Additionally, Guang Ming Daily (Guang Ming Ribao, 2007) published a debate from several experts. Two main arguments from the experts will be demonstrated in this paragraph. Firstly, the president of the China Society of Cultural Heritage Luo Zhewen explained that for such an important national cultural heritage as the Forbidden City, management must be taken seriously to protect the heritage and it should be dominated by Chinese tradition, and properly absorb individual business projects with characteristics of other countries. In contrast, Du Xiaofan, who is the UNESCO National Program Officer for Culture Heritage, stated Starbucks entering the Forbidden City should be regarded as the exchange and collision of Chinese and Western cultures, not confrontation. He has visited several countries and found many Chinese restaurants have been engaged in commercial activities within the local World Cultural Heritage Protection Zone. Similar to the previous stakeholders, Kant would approve both side of the arguments as they were criticising from different aspects but the common goal was to build a better Forbidden City for visitors – Luo Zhewen spoke from the perspective of the protection of cultural relics in the Forbidden City whom hoped to protect the cultural monument to the greatest extent possible from being destroyed whilst protecting traditional Chinese culture; Meanwhile, Du Xiaofan promoted the idea of a more open and internationalised Forbidden City and hoped to build a global image to the public.

Lastly, an online petition initiated by Rui Chenggang attracted half a million people to sign (Watts, 2007). The majority of Chinese netizens who posted comments were against commercial facilities in the Forbidden City. The opponents seem to have enough evidence to show that their fears are not superfluous. Judging from the China in the recent decade, from 'KFC' and 'McDonald's' all over the streets to NBA games and Hollywood blockbusters, foreign cultures are profoundly changing the original Chinese. The image of that ancient civilisation is fading away, and traditional culture is being hit. Using the Kant’s theory, it is a reasonable action for the Chinese netizens to go against Starbucks as their intention was to protect their own culture. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese cherish their culture immensely and they are very protective over the Chinese culture – there is no tolerance towards any disrespect. They believe that any improper and disrespectful traditions will lose the dignity of the country. China is hugely influenced by the Confucianism, which makes them a group-oriented nation and will criticise any act of disrespecting cultural dignity. This explains the internet battle and the huge pressure created towards Starbucks. However, the Starbucks incident exposed the deep anxiety of some Chinese people in the cultural identity facing the era of globalisation. It coincided with the crisis of national identity brought about by China's increasingly deep involvement in the global system, which made it particularly intense and sensitive. Out of a strong sense of crisis in the mother's culture and national interests, some 'elites' hoped to resist the invasion of foreign cultures by reviving and rebuilding their own cultures, rebuilding their identity with their own cultural resources, and regaining their dignity. Briefly, the cultural conservatism generated by the impact of Western heterogeneous culture was the main reason for this event. In this regard, the Starbucks incident was by no means an isolated incident, and its correlation with many cultural events in modern China was clearly discernible.

This reaction seems to be confirming Huntington's (Huntington, 1993) hypothesis: “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics.” Huntington sees the rise of cultural conservatism as “each civilisation will become a single coherent political entity”, as eventually the nation states will disappear. However, after Starbucks’ moved out of the Forbidden City, the Forbidden City coffee shop replaced Starbucks where served Chinese tea and coffee (Reuters, 2007). This is somewhat contradictive to what the Chinese stakeholders argued about Starbucks. Starbucks had become a target for destroying the integrity of traditional Chinese culture, the new café did not only sell Chinese tea but also coffee. There is a question that is puzzling – if Starbucks representing Western food culture is enough to destroy the integrity of the Chinese culture, why the coffee culture will not destroy the integrity of the culture? According to those who were against the 'Starbucks culture', coffee should also be a forbidden product in the Forbidden City, allowing the existence of coffee should also be regarded as a cultural invasion. One logical reason was that the Chinese were opposed to 'Starbucks' not because of coffee culture, but due to Starbucks belonged to a foreign origin, which made it difficult for people to accept their place in the Forbidden City. Although, as Jim Donald said, after entering the Forbidden City, Starbucks had made great effort to adapt this store to the surrounding cultural environment as much as possible. However, particular groups of Chinese still believed that the existence of Starbucks was a bad graft in their culture and a scene that damaged traditional Chinese culture – without removing 'Starbucks' from the Forbidden City, the tradition and integrity of Chinese culture will be difficult to preserve.

In my judgement and with the grounding of Kant’s theory, it is difficult to justify the “rightness” for each stakeholder as true intentions are almost impossible to discover. However, this business decision appeals ethical to me based on Kant’s theory. Starbucks’ expansion to the Forbidden City should be classified as ethical as the intention was to expand their business profile instead of humiliating this world heritage. This case happened in 2007 when China was still at the early stage of economic development. Simultaneously, Chinese were not yet fully accustomed to the “invasion” of foreign cultures. Therefore, it is arguable that if this case happened in the recent time frame, we might see a different story with how the publics would react to it. Concluding from analysis from the main stakeholders with Kant’s theory, responses from every stakeholder is considered ethical as they all hold moral intention and seeking for the best from each of their perspective. However, this phenomenon reflects the limitation of Kant’s theory. The Kant’s theoretical background has characteristics of the society it was created at. The speed of globalisation, and the different moral standards and diversification of culture were not recognised which makes the theory itself inconsistent with the contemporary era, in this case, the 20th century. Therefore, the theory itself may not be applicable for today. Additionally, since global business expansion did not exist in Kant’s time and multi-cultural environment was not acknowledged either, hence it is uncertain how Kant would view or criticise this case, since the theory is outdated to be used in the contemporary global environment.

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Starbucks Evicted from The Forbidden City: Public Debates Analysis with Kantian Ethics Theory. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
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