Starbucks and disneyfication of Tibetan culture in Amdo

On 22 September, Xi Jinping began his first state visit to the United States in Seattle. This segment of Xi Jinping’s visit will focus on businesses expanding into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). For American businesses investing in the PRC involves a careful balance between gaining access to the largest market in the world and fulfilling their obligations to respect human rights. The PRC has tried to use its size to force companies to follow Chinese laws that violate human rights. For businesses that are considering investing in Tibetan areas of the PRC the threats to human rights are even more pronounced. Because crimes against humanity are being committed in Tibet business operations must take the wide spread and systematic attack on human rights into consideration and ensure that they are not complicit in human rights violations. Most importantly, the businesses must be able to show that they are respecting human rights and not benefitting from or complicit in violations.

Most recently, Starbucks has failed to demonstrate its support for human rights and instead has been used to support Chinese propaganda, which defends and justifies the commission of crimes against humanity in Tibetan areas.

On Friday 11 September 2015, Starbucks opened two new stores in Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Tibetan region of Amdo. Despite Starbucks’s voluntary commitments to respect human rights and benefit local communities there is no evidence that Starbucks has taken any measures to ensure that it is not complicit in nor benefitting from human rights violations. Starbucks has not responded to repeated emails and phone calls for information.

That Starbucks opened shop on the Tibetan plateau is not surprising. Starbucks, like many other multinational businesses, has increased its presence in the PRC. In 2011, there were under 500 Starbucks in the PRC. In 2014, there were 1,367. 742 of the 1,599 Starbucks opened world wide were in the PRC. By 2015, Starbucks hopes to have 1,500 stores in the PRC and 3,000 by 2019. As a sign of Starbucks’s increased presence in the PRC, its CEO Howard Schultz will meet Xi Jinping at the airport Tuesday to welcome him to Seattle.


Starbucks is required to carry out a human rights due diligence assessment to ensure that none of its shops contribute to human rights violations. This requirement is enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, which is the most widely accepted and definitive statement of existing international law. It is also part of the UN Global Compact, which preceded the UN Guiding Principles and Starbucks signed in 2004. Under both of these standards, Starbucks must support, respect and not be complicit in human rights violations. Additionally, businesses must be able to “know and show” that they are respecting human rights.

Starbucks has not provided any information that opening the new stores in Xining is consistent with its human rights obligations. Starbucks referred TCHRD to the published materials on its website, which does not have any specific information about Starbucks’s operations on the Tibetan Plateau. Such broad information does not fulfill Starbucks’s human rights obligations. That Starbucks know the human rights risks in Xining and how it will avoid contributing to human rights violations is particularly important for for Tibetan areas. This is because the PRC is committing crimes against humanity in Tibet.

Crimes against humanity are defined by the context specific human rights violations are committed in. Arbitrary detention, murder, torture, and enforced disappearances are all carried out as part of a government policy that applies to all Tibetan areas. This government campaign focuses on undermining Tibetan culture, which is viewed as a source of resistance. This includes, among other things, arresting community leaders, the forcible resettlement of Tibetan nomads, removing references to Tibetan culture from textbooks, restricting Tibetan’s right to celebrate important religious and cultural events, and the destruction or “disneyfication” of sacred Tibetan sites. Disneyfication refers to the trivializing of important Tibetan objects and customs for commercial benefit, usually in tourism. All of this is supported by a well organized propaganda campaign that denies the commission of any human rights violations, denigrates the Dalai Lama, and claims the PRC has helped Tibetans. Any meaningful human rights due diligence assessment would have revealed the absurdity of the PRC’s propaganda and the ongoing commission of crimes against humanity in Tibetan areas.

Both the timing and layout of the new Starbucks in Xining suggest that the company did not carry out any human rights due diligence. Chinese propaganda about Tibet was uniquely intense to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The anniversary came on Tuesday 8 September, three days before the new Starbucks in Xining opened. To commemorate the anniversary the PRC recommitted itself to policies and rhetoric that amount to crimes against humanity. State media described the PRC’s crackdown on human rights as a battle in a war and vowed to “deepen” the fight. Senior Chinese officials urged the army, judiciary, and police to be ready for a long fight against the Dalai Lama.

The PRC also published a white paper that pointed to economic development in Tibet as justification for its occupation and claimed that Tibet is now in a “golden age.” Days after the PRC announced it would continue its policies in Tibet and justified those policies by point to the economic development of Tibet, Starbucks opened two shops on the Tibetan Plateau. The timing of opening the shops in Xining fueled and supported the PRC’s propaganda. It demonstrated an unwillingness to acknowledge human rights violations in Tibet and supported the PRC’s claims of economic development. Doing so in the context of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian populations in Tibet contributes to human rights violations.

Starbucks has also contributed to the disneyfication of Tibetan culture. The only information about the new Starbucks come from Chinese state media. The reports highlighted the assimilation of Tibetans into the PRC and the “ethnic features” in the new shops. However, aside from having yaks on mugs and serving Tibetan butter tea there is no indication that the Starbucks has done anything to benefit or protect Tibetan culture. Instead, the new Starbucks seem to be feeding a policy of trivializing and undermining Tibetan culture for commercial gain. While not as severe as the disneyfication in other industries, such as tourism, this is contributing to policies aimed at undermining Tibetan culture. Support, even if it is merely implied, for this policy contributes to human rights violation. This is because the PRC implements this policy by committing crimes against humanity. In this context, even seemingly simple actions, like trivializing Tibetan culture as a marketing ploy, contributes to human rights violations.

It is possible for businesses like Starbucks to operate in Tibetan areas without contributing to human rights violations. In June, TCHRD published a Code of Conduct for Businesses Operating in Tibet. The code of conduct lays out how following human rights standards that are accepted by the PRC, the international community, and multinational organizations can help a businesses avoid contributing to human rights violations in Tibet. The code of conduct emphasizes carrying out meaningful human rights due diligence, transparency, and reinvesting in local Tibetans who do not benefit from government programs. These are all principles that Starbucks has claimed to follow. Unfortunately, these do not seem to be principles Starbucks has followed when it opened shops in Xining.

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