Starbucks is facing a thorny issue: is it possible to market a Chinese product to emphasize the country's historical mastery of trade and agriculture, and ignore the past half-century of manufacturing missteps? The coffee chain has a new blend in the works it will call "South of the Clouds," grown in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan (which means "south of the clouds"); a romantic name and an impressive project, to be sure. But can it succeed?
In the past few years, the news linking "China" to "food" has almost always been bad, from milk laced with the manufacturing byproduct melamine that killed or sickened thousands of Chinese children, to lead-tainted toys that engendered a whole industry of lead-testing and legislation, to the frequent and less-salacious minor news items about the safety of Chinese-manufactured food additives.

The biggest problem with China in my opinion: the Communist government of the past century has all but obliterated the considerable agricultural wisdom of centuries, with farmers left not knowing how to nourish their crops and livestock (the root source of the melamine poisoning) and officials only helping by punishing those who don't produce food that meets standards.

So Starbucks has its work cut out, not only to convince consumers that this coffee is worthy of the China of its empirical past, but also to produce something worth the eloquent name. The company says it has been working with Yunnan coffee growers for three years, and though at first the blend will combine arabica beans from Latin America and the Asia-Pacific with local Yunnan beans, Starbucks hopes to develop a source of superpremium arabica coffee from the area. The goal is twofold: bring Chinese coffee to China; bring Chinese coffee to the world.

It's a lofty goal. Let's just hope the world, and China, is ready.

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