This morning I was invited to appear on RTHK3's "Backchat" show to comment on the blogger-driven firestorm about whether Starbucks should have been allowed in the Forbidden City and whether it should stay. (The show's audio will eventually be archived here.)
The firestorm was started by Rui Chenggang, a star anchor on Chinese Central Television (CCTV)'s English-language service, who also writes a blog on Sina.com - one of China's largest blogging platforms - as well as on CCTV's blog site. On January 12th he wrote a post arguing that Starbucks should leave the Forbidden City. Roland Soong translated it on ESWN here.
The story - largely framed as grassroots cyber-nationalism and an example of the newfound power of Chinese "netizens" - has been lapped up by newspapers across the globe. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece late last week titled How blogging can galvanize China (thanks to Gen for the link to a freely available version on post-gazette.com). It quotes Rui as saying: "Blogging is giving ordinary grass-roots Chinese people a chance to express themselves."
Let's keep a few things in perspective. Rui is no "ordinary grass-roots Chinese person." I first met him not in Beijing but in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum. Unlike most "grass-roots" people he gets invited to speak at international meetings where he rubs shoulders with CEO's. As a very smart, sophisticated, and globally minded guy, Rui can talk to powerful people in their own language and they bother to answer his e-mails.
Rui is one of several relatively young and increasingly influential Chinese journalists who write popular blogs - and whose popularity and influence has increased thanks to their blogs. Let's call them "China's A-list Journo-bloggers," shall we? (Suggestions for some other term are welcome..)
His Starbucks blog post got the attention it did because of his position, because it contained original information about a direct conversation with a global CEO, and because the editors of Sina.com chose to highlight that blog post prominently on their front page. My friend Roland Soong says he told a journalist who called him for comment about the story that the power in this situation lies as much with anonymous editors at Sina.com who giveth influence and taketh away. (The journalist did not end up quoting Roland on this point.)
Another influential Chinese A-List Journo-blogger, "Rose" Luqiu Luwei of Phoenix TV, writes a blog in Chinese called Rose Garden. She has just published an article in the latest issue of the journalism journal Nieman Reports titled Blogging News in China that helps to provide more context to the Chinese Journo-blogger phenomenon. Her blog is also on Sina.com. She started it after a friend who works at Sina urged her to do so. Rose's blog, with accounts of her foreign travels to major world events as a Phoenix TV reporter and interviews with world leaders, quickly became a hit with the Sina.com readership - precisely because her life is so unlike that of the ordinary "grass roots." Her article explains why in more detail.
Rose also points out that three articles she posted on her blog were taken down because something about them was too sensitive - she declines to specify exactly what. Her piece concludes:
We are left to wonder whether in the near future China will allow citizen-journalism Web enterprises like Korea's OhMyNews to exist. If so, Chinese people would have more access to information about what is happening in their country and in the world. However, the restrictive changes Chinese officials recently instituted for the news media—both domestic and foreign—indicate they fear the power and the influence of the Internet.
Read the original article in full - it is fascinating and you'll learn a lot - but my point is this: the Starbucks-blogger-gate is not about how anybody in China can go on the Internet and bring about widespread public debate and even provoke a policy change. What is really happening is that certain people who are already relatively successful and famous can use the Internet to galvanize public sentiment to bring about change in ways that weren't possible before.
That in itself is a big step forward, but as Rose's experience shows, her power, or Rui Chenggang's, or any other Chinese journo-blogger's power is limited to issues that the Chinese blog-hosting companies and blog site editors feel: a) will likely be appealing to large numbers of readers and thus generate traffic and discussion on their service; and b) won't get their companies in trouble with the authorities.
One other thing to keep in mind with this story is that in some quarters Rui Chenggang is being unfairly lumped in with China's head-banging anti-foreign nationalists - mainly because some such people have been commenting enthusiastically on his blog and citing him as a champion. Rui himself has made it clear (see a follow up post "What am I really trying to do?") that he is a globalist and he is not complaining about Starbucks in the Forbidden City because he is anti-foreign. Rather he is complaining about the rampant commercialism by the authorities who run China's national monuments more generally, and thinks that allowing tacky displays of commercial branding at China's World Heritage Sites is unbecoming of a people who ought to be proud of their heritage. His goal, it appears, is actually to provoke a total rethink about the way such sites are managed.
To highlight Rui's globalist perspective, the indefatigable Roland has translated a post that Rui wrote on September 30, 2006 titled An essay about Japan that every Chinese person ought to read. It is a call for Sino-Japanese friendship. It is also an appeal for young Chinese to stop going around with historical chips on their shoulders and rather to "look at Japan, America and the world in a multi-dimensional, diversified, rational and self-confident manner."