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Little thoughts over a Big Mac

A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
red lantern
Red lantern, golden arches: Outside the McDonald's on Wangfujing Street  

BEIJING (CNN) -- I went to a McDonald's today -- for purely journalistic reasons, mind you. It was a little past noon, and the place was just like any other McDonald's around the world -- swamped at lunch.

There were some Chinese touches, of course. Ronald McDonald spoke in weepingly beautiful Mandarin from a videotape playing on a corner monitor. There was a laissez faire attitude at the counter -- no lines, just push your way through and establish eye contact.

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • The help looked like those at McDonald's everywhere -- the deeply harassed yet focused look of fast-food workers trying to keep ahead of the rising tide of hungry people. There was a brief pause around me when I asked for a "number one" meal.

    Although I ordered in Chinese, the lady behind the counter insisted I point to my selection displayed on a laminated sheet. You will be glad to know, I am sure, that the food was just like any other McDonald's.

    On my way to the second floor dining area, I passed three other non-Chinese patrons. They looked, by turns, embarrassed ("My God, I'm in China and I'm eating at a McDonald's?"), defiant ("You just don't understand, I need comforting, home-style fast-food!"), and relieved ("Thank God, I'm in China and I'm eating at a McDonald's!").

    More global than American

    Much has been written about U.S.-China business relations and the sometimes strained trade negotiations between the two countries. The United States is one of China's leading trading partners. According to the U.S. State Department, China had a trade surplus with the U.S. of $58 billion in 1998.

    Wangfujing street: One of the premier commercial avenues in Beijing  

    All that being said, can one truly call things like the McDonald's on Wangfujing Street part of what some of my colleagues love to call "Americanization"?

    Yes and no. The U.S. food and entertainment industries are surely making inroads here because more Chinese, especially those in the big cities, have disposable incomes.

    Directly across Wangfujing Street from McDonald's is a Bennetton, an Italian company, and it was busy too. Patrons browsed a counter stocked with cosmetics by Shisedo, a Japanese firm, at a nearby department store.

    The Colonel in China: This Kentucky Fried Chicken store is a short walk from Tiananmen Square  

    I am not so sure we should call it Americanization so much as globalization. You can see the same phenomenon in nearly every mall -- as well as every mall's parking lot -- in the United States.

    National pride evident

    At the same time, a very strong nationalism is evident here. On my way downtown, as my taxi passed through Tiananmen Square, my driver and I noticed a crowd of people in uniforms standing along the Tiananmen balcony, just above Mao's portrait.

    The sparkling white uniforms of naval officers mingled with the green of the People's Liberation Army. "Soldiers," my driver said in English.

     Top ten U.S. investors in China (April 1999)
    Motorola $1.2 billion-plus (estimated 2.5 billion by 2000)
    Coca-Cola $1.1 billion
    Kodak $1 billion
    GM About $1 billion
    ARCO $700 million-plus
    BPAmoco $700 million-plus
    Ford $375 million
    UTC $300 million
    Intel $250 million
    Pepsico $228 million
    Source: US-China Business Council
    Forget politics. U.S. culture has invaded the mainland and the Chinese will never be the same

    I thought they must have been part of a tour, but I was mistaken. A block farther from the square traffic halted as an air force parade thundered over Chang An Avenue.

    People got out of their cars to watch streams of bombers, fighters, tankers and combat helicopters fly over. Several jets released colored smoke -- trailers of green, yellow and red.

    "Piaoliang!" said the man standing next to me in the middle of the avenue.

    Pretty, indeed.

    Celebrate China, have a Coke

    The television has been playing a lot of well-produced music videos featuring operatic singers hailing China as panoramas waft by of smiling, happy children, farmers at work, ocean oil rigs, marching PLA guards and the nation's leaders.

    The real thing: Coca-Cola is one of the best-known and most widely advertised U.S. products in China  

    Over the past several days I have passed a great many people wearing traditional Chinese outfits, especially the famous "qi pao," the high-collared, form-fitting dress once thought to be decadent and now considered very trendy.

    These new versions are very elegant, tasteful and expensive. Maybe, with the impending historic celebration, people are taking into account things about China that are undeniably Chinese -- even as they drink their Coca-Colas.

    Here is an apocryphal story I heard a while back:

    A little boy from Japan flies to the United States with his parents, and on the way in from the airport they pass the "miracle mile" most places have now. The little boy turns to his parents and says, "Hurray! They have McDonald's here in America too!"

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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