How blogging can galvanize China
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HONG KONG -- A week ago, Rui Chenggang wrote a post on his blog about an issue that had been bothering him for years: a Starbucks cafe sitting inside China's Forbidden City in Beijing. The 29-year-old TV news anchor wrote that Starbucks Corp. "opening inside the imperial palace is really too inappropriate for the world's impression of the Forbidden City. This isn't globalization; this is the erosion of Chinese culture." Mr. Rui said he liked Starbucks -- just not inside a national landmark.
Now, Mr. Rui's post has been viewed more than half a million times, according to the blog's counter, and his demand to shut the cafe has turned into a national cause. Journalists camp out in front of the Starbucks kiosk in a distant corner of the majestic, 600-year-old home of China's emperors, whose English-language name refers to the exclusion of commoners in imperial times. Now, authorities at the Forbidden City say they are deliberating whether to force Starbucks to leave after six years.
"Blogging is giving ordinary grass-roots Chinese people a chance to express themselves," Mr. Rui says.
It is also giving companies a headache in a market laden with cultural and business challenges. China is home to 132 million Internet users, second only to the U.S. And according to one government estimate, there are 20 million Chinese bloggers, of whom 3.2 million write actively.
All of the spin-control efforts that have made blogging a challenge for brands in America are compounded in China. "There is not a precedent for solving consumer grievances in China. If you are not happy with what you buy, you don't call up customer service," said Scott Kronick, the president of WPP Group PLC's Ogilvy PR in China.
Instead, Chinese consumers mobilize and gain access to information -- not all necessarily accurate -- using the Internet. The Chinese government censors the Internet for political content but generally doesn't restrict the sort of discussion Mr. Rui's post spurred.
Starbucks is the latest example of a personal beef escalating into a national issue. This past April, Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC had to reshoot and replace an ad that bloggers complained insulted students. In June, outrage among bloggers led to a class-action lawsuit against Dell Inc. after the company inserted the wrong processors in laptops. (That lawsuit was thrown out by a court in December.) And in September, Procter & Gamble Co. faced an online uproar over its handling of concerns about trace metals in its brand of SK-II cosmetics. Public anger in that case was motivated less by worries over product safety than by P&G's decision not to apologize to customers and make speedy refunds.
Chinese bloggers have even adopted a phrase for these online scandals: men, or "gate" -- a derivative of the American Watergate scandal.
An industry is developing both to help companies deal with these online crises and to take advantage of the Internet space for marketing. Researchers dig up everything from the latest lingo ("74" means "go to h-") to online-only celebrities, like two lip-synching college students called the Back Dorm Boys, whom online trend spotters turned into spokesmen for Motorola Inc. and PepsiCo Inc.
The Starbucks case highlights what makes the Chinese style of blogging challenging for companies. The popularity of group bulletin boards and readers' commentaries can quickly amplify the voice of a single blogger.
The kiosk opened in 2000 to a storm of attention. But the issue went away after Starbucks took down some of the signs around the kiosk. Today, Starbucks is joined in the Forbidden City by signs for American Express Co.
But Mr. Rui hadn't forgotten about the Starbucks outlet and decided to email the company's chief executive officer, Jim Donald -- whom he says he had met on a panel at Yale University -- and then blog about it. "Jim, how are you doing?" Mr. Rui wrote, according to an email Mr. Rui posted on his blog. "We talked about why Starbucks should move its shop out of the Forbidden City. ... Am curious to know if you have a plan to have it removed."
A few days later, he says, he got an emailed response from Mr. Donald, and, with his permission, posted it to his blog. "We have shown and continue to show our respect for local history, culture and social customs, and have made serious efforts to fit within the environment of the Forbidden City," the email response on his blog reads.
The response brought Mr. Rui's blog even more readers, and more than 2,500 posts so far.
Authorities at the Forbidden City museum declined to answer questions from The Wall Street Journal and instead referred to comments they gave to the state-owned Xinhua news agency Wednesday.
According to that report, the museum is reassigning the shops inside the palace, including Starbucks, as part of an overall face-lift. "Whether or not Starbucks remains depends on the entire design plan that will be released in the first half of the year," Feng Nai'en, a museum spokesman, told Xinhua.
Still, the Xinhua report indicates government officials are heeding the online protesters. "The museum is working with Starbucks to find a solution by this June in response to the protests," Mr. Feng said.
Starbucks, which hopes to someday turn China into its biggest market outside the U.S., declined to answer questions about the incident. But in a statement, the company reiterated it has operated "in a respectful manner that fits within the environment."
At the Forbidden City Thursday, Sun Yu, a 26-year-old visitor, said, "I don't think there should be any commercial operations in the Forbidden City, much less a Starbucks."
Wei Shanshan, a 26-year-old tour guide, who also thinks Starbucks doesn't belong on the grounds, added, "Some foreign tourists are curious to see a Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City and ask me about it."
Even crisis advisers don't entirely agree on how companies should respond to bloggers in these cases. "The best strategy is to monitor for these crises, to catch them early before they get so big," says Sam Flemming, the CEO of Shanghai consultancy CIC data LLC, which works for Pepsi and Nike Inc. "And then you should react quickly. Consumers feel like they should be listened to. If they feel like they're being ignored, it makes things even worse."
But what begins as a one-on-one conversation between a company and a blogger can quickly escalate online, says Tony Ip, the China general manager of WPP Group's G2 Relationship Marketing. "When bloggers have the chance to talk to the CEO of Starbucks, they will want to show their power. Then an individual consumer's point of view can become a public agenda."
Roland Soong, author of the EastSouthWestNorth blog, which charts China's Internet culture, said companies' real problem is their methods of dealing with traditional media don't help them with bloggers. "Even when Starbucks knows about this, there isn't a thing they can do about it," he said. "Bloggers are writing for personal reasons."
Among those is nationalism, and Chinese in the past have jumped on perceived transgressions against Chinese culture or history. In recent years, they have helped to force off the air and the pages of newspapers ads from Nike, Toyota Motor Corp. and others they felt offended national pride.
While China may appear to be embracing some foreign traditions, it is a fine line. "Chinese people view celebrating Christmas as a mark of progress," said Tom Doctoroff, the North Asia CEO of WPP Group's JWT ad agency. "But when you deal with the pride of the nation like the Forbidden City in a disrespectful way, it becomes much more dangerous."
Mr. Rui posted his remarks on his personal blog, although as an anchor for China Central Television he works for the government. Mr. Rui said he is a regular Starbucks customer and that his goal wasn't to whip up anti-American sentiment.
"This became an issue because Starbucks is a symbol of Western popular culture," he says. "The question is, How do we absorb and embrace the Western world without losing our own identity? This is an issue that everybody is thinking about. I just happened to write about it."
First Published January 19, 2007 12:00 am