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Battle brews over Beijing Starbucks

Some Chinese want a Forbidden City shop shut. The government is weighing the concerns.

January 19, 2007|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Will the Frappuccino be forbidden on imperial grounds?

Government officials wouldn't say if the Starbucks baristas would be barred from Beijing's Forbidden City but acknowledged Thursday that they were weighing concerns of more than 500,000 Chinese who want the coffee chain kicked out.

The announcement could be seen as a small boost for the petition drive started by Rui Chenggang, a popular Chinese TV personality. On his Chinese language blog, Rui said officials had eroded Chinese culture by inviting Starbucks to set up shop inside the 587-year-old palace, once home to China's powerful emperors.

Chen Wei, 25, is a fan of Starbucks coffee and visits the upscale coffee shop frequently. But he said Friday that he supported Rui's campaign to banish the popular American brand from the palace.

"The Forbidden City is a symbol of our culture, and I don't think it's a good thing that we let so much commercial behavior exist there," the graduate student said at a downtown Beijing Starbucks.

The Forbidden City's grounds were "forbidden" because no one outside the emperor's household could enter without his permission. The complex has since been converted into a museum and is arguably China's most popular tourist destination.

In 2000, the Seattle-based chain staked its logo in the complex. Rent from the shop is funding the palace renovation.

Since 1999, the company has opened 210 stores in mainland China, conquering the Middle Kingdom -- and 36 other countries -- with its lattes and Frappuccinos.

In a written statement, Starbucks said it "has operated in a respectful manner that fits within the environment" and is "honored to have the opportunity, under an agreement with the Forbidden City, to enhance visitors' museum experience."

But Starbucks addicts here should take note.

In 2000, facing similar criticism, Chinese officials asked KFC to close its outlet in Beihai Park, a royal garden that borders the Forbidden City.

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evelyn.iritani@latimes.com

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