Coffee Colonialism

On recent travels through Russia and China I was intrigued by the sheer number of UK and US coffee and fast food chains dotted about. It may not be much of a surprise. Famously red square features a McDonald’s, but the prevalence of these foreign businesses really is huge. It is to be somewhat expected, Russia has a mixed economy whilst the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a more restricted Socialist market, even so when you consider the huge emphasis both states place on national identity, the prevalence of foreign companies does seem at odds with their respective national identities.

Arriving into China, I naively prepared for a culture shock as I was transported to what I thought would be an alien culture completely different to familiarity of life back home in the UK. Depressingly though, after arriving at Beijing’s central train station the first business I saw before even passing through security was a McDonald’s. Upon stepping outside into the square a giant KFC logo loomed over the major shop fronts, dominating the scene. What I had expected to be a totally foreign experience turned out to be more like a walk down the high street on first impressions. China does have an amazingly rich, unique culture and cuisine but at major attractions it’s western businesses that hold prime real estate instead of Chinese ones. Seen in the flesh, the full adoption of global businesses by former closed communist states is quite a shock. China has one of the largest number of McDonalds’ restaurants in the world with over 2,200 being built in under 30 years. Considering the chain pushed into most foreign markets 10 years previous to China the focus, and demand, for old Ronald McDonald in the People’s Republic is phenomenal.

On appearances, these global franchises seem to thrive. Starbucks’ and Costa’s unique selling point (USP) in both countries appears to come from providing an upmarket western experience for the middle classes. Willing to pay the outrageous prices well above market levels, customers are drawn in by the western image displayed in the advertisements that promote a European/American experience. Cheaper options like Burger King and KFC use the same idea but at the lower end of the market. As such fast-food American style is a staple-point of nearly all historical landmarks and city centers in both Russia and China, and indeed the world. 

The prevalence of these global franchises is huge and all maintain English language names and menus- a credit to their would-be customer’s education in a foreign language. Whilst their presence is a natural occurrence of globalism, these businesses have huge influence on how the West’s culture is perceived. The specific effects are wide ranging but the major impact seems to be the idealisation of our culture.

Marketing and branding goes a long way to impress upon people that West is best. Put simply, shiny American businesses that market an image of quality and wealth give the same impression of the society they originate from. Whilst not entirely false, the image is overstated and can have negative consequences. Examples of Chinese and Russian franchises in the US are beyond scarce. The purpose of this article isn’t to label this trend as good or bad but rather highlight the important knock-on effects of exported brands and their marketing from a subjective view.

The effect permeates through to Chinese society in many guises. The ultimate outcome being the glorification or European/American culture. Image is one example where admiration is taken to the extremes. SPF 130 sun creams (SPF 50 is the highest sold in the UK) are on sale presumably to keep your skin a (w/h)ealthy white. Even in the developed societies of Russia and China there’s also market for other more dubious skin whitening products. Adverts always use an image of extremely European looking Chinese and soap operas often feature a very pale cast. Young Siberian models flock to the Chinese market, churned out by modelling schools and agencies; the desired look is pale, young and European. Exclusivities such as free entry and drinks in the top bars and clubs is also a privilege for western travellers. Not inherently wrong, the associations are still hard to stomach as a European in China. When I asked the locals I’d met if they noticed these differences, most hardly questioned it and generally accepted it as the status quo. 

Admittedly film, music and celebrity culture are also major factors of this cultural adoption. But just like western businesses, they all cohesively contribute to the same idealism of our culture as some sort of holy grail of civilisation.

Rightly or wrongly western ideals are impressed upon foreign populations. There are however definite negative effects on self-image and self-identity, these should be highlighted. Anyway, just food for thought. Perhaps, next time you feel yourself wishing away your culture for another, just remember that somewhere out there, there’s a whole sub-continent or two trying to replicate it.

By David Evans

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