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Campaign under way to evict Starbucks from Forbidden City

BEIJING—The discreet outdoor sign is gone from the Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing's most famous historical site, the Forbidden City.

But the outlet there is generating sudden heat on the Internet and in newspapers, sparked by a journalist who contends that its presence is "obscene" and a "trashing of Chinese culture."

"All I want is for Starbucks to move out of the Forbidden City peacefully, quietly. And we'll continue enjoying Starbucks elsewhere in the city," said Rui Chenggang, a popular television anchorman who set off the drive.

By Tuesday, the issue hit the front page of the high-selling Beijing News, and Rui's personal blog on the matter drew a half-million page views and thousands of responses, many of them nationalistic calls for the removal of the Starbucks outlet.

The Forbidden City, surrounded by a 20-foot-deep moat in the heart of Beijing, was the sanctuary of imperial dynasties from about 1420 until the last dynasty fell in 1911. Inside dwelled an absolute ruler considered the "son of heaven."

Renamed the Palace Museum, the massive site, comprising a labyrinthine complex of 9,000 rooms, is one of the most popular tourist venues in the world.

Rui said he first spotted the Starbucks in the red-walled complex five years ago.

"I was showing some friends around the Forbidden City, and I saw the Starbucks logo. I thought, `Wow! Where did this come from?'" he recalled. "It's totally out of place. I see it as a pollution of the integrity of the Forbidden City, which is the epitome of Chinese culture."

He said he was stirred to action after a recent exchange of correspondence with Starbucks chief executive Jim Donald, who told him that Starbucks was invited to open an outlet there six years ago and did so with "great sensitivity" to the surroundings.

Seattle-based Starbucks has some 200 coffee shops in China, including one near a Great Wall of China site at Badaling, a short drive from Beijing. The company believes China will become its largest market outside the United States.

A spokesman for Starbucks in China, Roger Sun, said the company "made serious efforts to fit into the environment of the Forbidden City and stay low profile there."

Employees said they were told to remove a small outdoor sign at the outlet last year. The tiny outlet, with no tables and only a few stools, has a facade similar to the other Forbidden City buildings, giving no indication that it houses a Starbucks. Other coffee shops, food stalls and vendors, mostly Chinese, also have venues on the grounds.

"I think it probably shouldn't be here," said Robb Vanderstoel, a Canadian leaving the outlet, coffee in hand. "But from my perspective I'm glad it is because I'm drinking their coffee."

A young Swedish tourist, Johanna Olsson, said she sympathized with the campaign: "I would probably also kick them out."

Rui said the coffee shop should be as unwelcome in the Forbidden City as it would be at the Taj Mahal in India, the pyramids in Egypt or the Louvre Museum in Paris.

He said that when he used a search engine with the terms "Starbucks in the Forbidden City," he found 289,000 results, indicating that the coffee shop had become a "ridiculous novelty for Westerners to seek in China."

Some Chinese don't find the coffee shop offensive.

"It shows that China is connected with the outside world. People from all over can take a break and have a coffee here," said Hu Weiming, a 52-year-old visitor. His niece, Hu Jingyan, differed, saying China "better not allow Western culture to get in here. It would be inharmonious."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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