Can you imagine, just for a second, the furore that would ensue should the Chinese Government decide to ban Starbucks from selling coffee in China, citing fears that the world’s largest coffee retailer could be ‘influenced’ by western governments to create a generation of caffeine-addicted Chinese?
In this entirely made up scenario, Starbucks, one would expect, might react with incredulity, suggesting that it has no intention of the sort. “We are a company owned by our shareholders and we have no unnatural links with western governments,” it might say, adding: “We’re a global business and would never jeopardise our commercial success or exploit our customers.” A tinge of exasperation might be heard in their voices.
Starbucks’ executives might point to the thousands of jobs it has created in China where it has already opened close to 1000 stores. They might refer to future investment plans to expand in the country, creating further employment, training and management development programmes for Chinese people. They might even highlight their support for local charities and good causes as the company grows.
“We’re an ethical company”, they would surely stress. “All we want to do is to bring a lifestyle choice enjoyed by millions of people across the world to the people of China,” the executives might respond to journalists with stories of corporate conflict to file.
The Chinese Government might brief journalists that Starbucks is actually subsidised by Western Governments, citing the very loose corporation tax rules in many western jurisdictions that enable the coffee company to minimise its tax bill and maximise profits. “Our tax arrangements are entirely legal,” Starbucks would almost certainly retort. “We pay all the taxes due under local tax laws.”
The Beijing authorities might shrug, then possibly produce a scientific paper highlighting the addictive nature of caffeine and the affects that prolonged, heavy use can have on the brain and central nervous system. Starbucks might counter with its own independent medical research to show that caffeine, consumed in moderation, actually has health benefits. To add weight to its arguments, Starbucks might line up a western government or two to declare their support for open trade and deny any unnatural interest in the caffeinating habits of Chinese citizens.
China could respond by reminding everyone how the British brought opium to China and exchanged it for silk and spices, leaving behind million of addicts. They might highlight the more recent focus by Western tobacco manufacturers who looked East when medical advice and public opinion turned against their products in the West. “No,” Starbucks might scream. None of this is evidence against us. We have no special relationship with Western Governments, no ulterior motives. We’re being scapegoated in a larger geo-political debate we’re not interested in and powerless.”
Such a ban might be characterised as a naked attempt by Beijing authorities to protect China’s domestic tea industry, under threat from the rising number of western coffee houses springing up across the country. With its business and the livelihood of its employees and suppliers at risk, Starbucks would be well within its rights to demand to see evidence of the threat it is supposed to pose. In the absence of any hard evidence, the Chinese Government could simply claim ‘national interest’ as a blanket and the ban could stand.
While this is an entirely fictitious scenario, the comms department at Starbucks would have our full sympathy as they fought a battle they are destined to lose; as they try to win a debate, the outcome agreed before the debate started. “That’s China,” people would suggest, with a shrug.
If all of this sounds a bit far-fetched, that’s exactly what’s happening to Chinese vendors of IT and communications equipment in the US market today. The US Congress in Washington is debating new rules to control federal agencies from buying information technology that has been “produced, manufactured or assembled” by companies with ties to the Chinese government (in other words, Chinese companies, but which also includes iPhones made in China) unless the FBI or a similar agency first determines the purchase would be in the national interest.
Honestly. A spin doctor couldn’t make it up.