Guest Editorial

Wake up and smell the coffee!

The Americans declare war on terror; the Chinese declare war on Starbucks.

This is not to suggest that America, for all its faults, is the more serious nation Ð but actually, maybe it is. I mean, just how silly can China get?

"Starbucks May Be 'Forbidden' at China Palace Museum." Such was the headline on the astonishing Reuters story out of Beijing. In it, we WERE told, Chinese authorities are training their official censorious guns on a Starbucks retail shop nestled subversively in Beijing's famed Forbidden City compound.

The worry is that the very grinding presence of this brewing branch of the multinational coffee-house chain is an insult to down-home, homegrown, true-red Chinese culture. But is it? Yes, you bet it is.

Heck, it doesn't take an Albert Einstein, an anti-space satellite rocket-scientist, or the second coming of Deng Xiaoping to know what's happening. In truth, any Starbucks is a kind of unintended insult to any local culture-everywhere, period. Starbucks infest the planet like corporate locusts that quietly but steadily eat away at local cultural foliage.

A Starbucks is as much a slick symbol of the homogenizing powers of mass-produced multinational consumer products as is a glossy new characterless automobile coldly designed in one country by a hardhearted committee of focus-group-type fuss-budgets, and then thrown together in another, drawing on car parts from all over.

You see, economic globalization doesnÕt give us culture, it gives us profits Ð albeit probably not properly distributed along all economic and social lines. Globalization doesnÕt enhance local cultures, it competes with them, sometimes grinding them into dust.

Consider the travel experience of today. Once you have toured widely enough, you see so many Guccis, Diors, KFCs, McDonalds and so on that you sometimes forget where you have been. You perhaps even start to wonder if there remains any indigenous, defining and unique center anywhere in the world.

But this retail homogenization is the price of globalization, and there is no antidote, even for the properly perfervid preservers of the China Palace Museum.

No, there is none all all available. That is, unless you want to go the route of North Korea by declaring yourself a hermit state chockablock with self-reliance, seal-off the borders, turn off the lights, and slowly but surely eat away at yourself until there's nothing left.

Okay, so that doesn't work. What's the alternative? It looks as if there's only one: it's the big Mac of globalization, like it or not!

China's Starbucks scare reminds me of the time about 200 years ago that the Luddites in Northern England railed furiously against the menacing process of industrialization in the Northern counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The movement that was to mash new-fangled machines and torch factories was at the same time both noble and ill-fated. Progress does not always improve things but opposing progress is a losers' game in today's world.

But that's exactly what mainland Chinese personality Rui Chenggang is proposing. And he's attracting a lot of attention, not just because he's a demagogue, but he's a media demagogue, like our very own Lou Dobbs. They both rail against globalization. Dobbs does his Luddite thing on CNN, Rui on CCTV9, the state owned channel.

Except for possibly us Americans, the Chinese today take second place to nobody as the world's most unapologetic materialists. Even their former brand of Communism, however neglected these days as an economic guidebook, was designed for the material man. Put on top of that the current, trendy 'to-be-rich-is-to-be-glorious' anthem of contemporary Chinese material woman - and you have one of the most profoundly materialistic societies ever.

To try to tame the tsunami-like wave of material globalization by lashing out at one silly little stupid Starbucks would strike any rational observer as a gesture too little, too late. Chinese authorities must understand that, having made the epochal decision in the 1990s to cross the Rubicon and enter the World Trade Organization, there is no turning back now.

Dear Beijing: it's much too late to return to that old time religion, a peasant-based Communism that worships equity over wealth. Yes, your museum is a treasure, but those days of immaculate preservation are long gone. Wake up and smell the coffee!

UCLA Prof. Tom Plate's new book has just been published, "Confessions of an American Media Man." He is a veteran journalist and member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.


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