China Bullies Starbucks over Hong Kong Barista’s Pro-Democracy Coffee Cup

starbucks Justin SullivanGetty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fresh from a successful campaign to force several foreign fashion designers to pull shirts off the market, Chinese Internet users trained their sights on Starbucks this week, demanding the American coffee company fire a Hong Kong barista accused of writing pro-democracy messages on cups.

The South China Morning Post on Monday reported that a Chinese user on the Twitter-style social media platform Weibo claimed one of his friends ordered three beverages from a Starbucks in a popular Hong Kong tourist area and found the slogan “Dear, Democracy Is a Good Thing” written on the cups. Hong Kong demonstrators have a penchant for waving signs with that slogan when they march through areas frequented by mainland visitors.

The Weibo complainant suggested his friend was singled out for coffee cup propaganda because he spoke Mandarin Chinese, alerting the barista to his identity (Hong Kong residents largely speak Cantonese). He said customers who appeared to be from elsewhere in Asia did not get the messages on their cups.

“My friend and I are very angry, but didn’t bring it up at the time for our safety,” the Weibo poster said, neatly echoing Beijing’s line that the Hong Kong protesters are dangerous radicals and potential terrorists. 

“I think at this particular time, a global chain like Starbucks should really keep their employees’ conduct within bounds, and not let customers spend money buying something that makes them disgusted,” he said.

A sizable number of like-minded Weibo users have besieged the Starbucks China account with similar comments. “I don’t drink Starbucks because I have more money, but because it provides a superior customer experience. This kind of activity has clearly upset a lot of loyal customers,” one of them wrote.

In fairness, this is a complaint Starbucks has heard before. Baristas have been known to write everything from creepy flirtations to extremely useful advice on coffee cups. The company has been criticized for putting political messages on its cups as a matter of corporate policy and once attempted an utterly disastrous initiative to train its baristas to initiate political “conversations” with customers.

The South China Morning Post found a similar tempest brewing in a teapot over in Taiwan, headquarters of a chain called CoCo that is basically Starbucks for bubble tea, which is essentially a milkshake stuffed with candy to which a small amount of tea is added.

One of CoCo’s shops in Hong Kong was accused of writing pro-democracy slogans on its receipts, in this case, “Hongkongers, add oil!”, a cheeky response to critics who accuse the protesters of burning with hatred. CoCo responded to the complaint on Friday by saying the staff was responsible for writing the slogans and announcing the store had been closed, although the SCMP found it open for business shortly after that statement was issued.

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