SHANGHAI — Carrefour appears to have weathered the threat of a boycott of its stores in China during the four-day May Day holiday.
While there were protests at several of its stores around China by hundreds of Chinese, the allure of the store’s steep discounts in the face of spiraling food prices kept calls for a full boycott to the primarily rhetorical. Many consumers have reported online that shopper numbers over the May Day holiday were down only slightly, if at all.
Indignant young Chinese, primarily college-aged and organizing over the Internet and through mobile phone short messages, have been rallying against Carrefour, its partial owner LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and French businesses in general after Olympic torch events in Paris in mid-April were disrupted by protesters supporting Tibetan independence. Supporters of the Carrefour boycott and protests assert LVMH and its chief, Bernard Arnault, support and have donated to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who Chinese view as a national enemy. LVMH has strongly denied the rumor.
Carrefour operates 112 stores in Mainland China, and has asserted its strong support for China and the Beijing Olympics. It has adopted Chinese flag-themed uniforms in its stores in recent weeks, stressed that it employs 40,000 Chinese people in retail alone and canceled its usual May Day promotions in order to avoid additional attention.
According to China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency, only a few Chinese cities saw large-scale protests on Thursday, the international labor memorial period that is a national holiday in China. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Carrefour locations in Changsha, Nanjing, Fuzhou, Chongqing and Shenyang, waving signs in support of the Beijing Summer Olympics and Chinese control of Tibet while opposing the French, the Dalai Lama and CNN, Xinhua reported. CNN drew fire because of critical statements one of its commentators made about China.
In the Hunan capital of Changsha, several hundred protesters gathered at a Carrefour at 10 a.m. Thursday. Their attempts to block the entrance to the store were curtailed by police. A few dozen students gathered at an outlet in Shenyang, capital of the northern Liaoning Province, around 9:20 a.m., but were immediately arrested.
Low turnout and prompt detainment also characterized the anti-Carrefour displays in Beijing. One, at the Baishiqiao Lu Carrefour, saw a handful of non-confrontational protesters waving Chinese flags. Another, at the technology hub Zhongguancun, consisted of two slogan-chanting protesters who were quickly removed, said Xinhua.
The small, defiant Zhongguancun protest resembled one in mid-April, where a sole young man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with anti-Western and anti-French slogans held a sit-in outside the Louis Vuitton store at Shanghai’s Plaza 66.
Last month also saw anti-Carrefour demonstrations in Wuhan, Kunming, Dalian, Harbin, Jinan, Xian, Qingdao and other cities on April 19 to 20. One American Peace Corps volunteer was allegedly attacked by several protesters when exiting a Carrefour in Zhuzhou City in Hunan Province.
May Day’s only large protest occurred outside a Carrefour in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, which is traditionally very international-looking and is the ancestral home of many overseas Chinese. Crowds there had swelled to more than 1,000 by 11 a.m., but were dispersed by police by 1 p.m., according to Xinhua.
The scope of the demonstrations could not be accurately determined at press time, as the government and state-controlled media have been eager to downplay and dampen the surging xenophobia. The store’s Chinese name, Jialefu, has been blocked on Chinese-language search engines; news reports about the protests in Mandarin and English, apart from those provided by the state-owned press, are also mostly blocked.
Still, the protests have made many Western businesses edgy about doing too much to raise their profiles in China at this delicate time. Louis Vuitton originally was to hold a vintage car rally across China this summer, but late last month postponed the event.