Cuckolders and Latte Hawkers Beware!

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Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

A tourist drinks a coffee outside the Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing's Forbidden City 19 January 2007.

China has lately been touted to overtake the United States in Internet usage, but the country's blogosphere is a fascinating, still evolving animal. When mobilized, China's 100 million-plus netizens can, by collective effort, accomplish noble ends. Take the case of Foxconn, a Taiwanese company with a factory in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. After two local journalists published an article questioning labor conditions in the factory (which made parts for Apple's I-pod), Foxconn sued them personally for millions of dollars. But the resulting hue-and-cry on the web prompted the company to back down. Admirable.

Still, there are also plenty of cases of net vigilanteism in which individuals have been tracked, identified and hounded. In one case, a university student was hounded out of his university and forced to barricade himself in his home after a husband posted a 5,000-word attack online accusing the man of having an affair with his wife — the husband's denunciation prompted groups of total strangers to get together online and form teams that went out and hunted down the student in the real world.

In another incident, a Beijing driver involved in an altercation over his use of a bicycle lane had to go on television to apologize after being identified through pictures of the incident posted on the web.

But if there was ever a demonstration of how virtual China can be rushed to judgment, it must be the current controversy over the Starbucks branch in Beijing's Forbidden City, the iconic former imperial palace complex that is one of the most potent symbols of Chinese imperial grandeur. The furor was started by Rui Chenggang, an English-language news announcer on the government's China Central Television. Rui wrote in his blog last week complaining about the presence of the Starbucks inside the hallowed walls of the Forbidden City. The presence of the coffee chain there was “eroding Chinese culture,” Rui wrote. It would be like having a Starbucks in the Louvre or at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, he later told a reporter. (There is a Starbucks next to the Louvre, though not actually inside the museum. And the reasons there aren't any Starbucks in Egypt or India are pretty obvious: no one can afford to buy the coffee).

The appeal to nationalism, predictably enough, brought an avalanche of outrage. Rui's online petition to remove Starbucks from the Forbidden City garnered half a million signatures; the Beijing News carried the story; Starbucks PR people made placating noises (there are already 200 outlets in China and the company aims to make the country its biggest market after the U.S., so they were ripe for the plucking); and various wangchong — networms, as they are known — made knee-jerk nationalist comments. In fact, the outlet, a tiny, hole-in-the-wall store with no sign outside, has been serving its signature overpriced, coffee-flavored milk to tourists for no less than six years. So why the sudden interest in the issue? Trotting out this lame duck (can ducks trot?) has certainly sparked a rush of internet traffic to Rui's blog, and gotten his post onto the front page of China's most popular blog aggregator, Regardless of motives or the merits of the argument (as the outlet is so discreet, I'm pretty agnostic, though there is something strange about having it right in the middle of the complex), the incident is a disturbing reminder that emotive nationalist posturing can be dangerously amplified by the web, and even acquire a life of its own. In China, as everywhere else, events in the blogosphere may have a powerful impact beyond the virtual world — for better and for worse.