The first McDonald’s in Beijing was a symbol of engagement

Society & Culture

When it opened near Tiananmen Square in 1992, the golden arches of America's most recognizable restaurant represented an act of strategic engagement for the U.S. For Beijingers, McDonald's represented cosmopolitanism, with Party officials allegedly rented out the 700-seat space for private functions such as their children’s birthdays.

This Week in China’s History: April 23, 1992

The center of Beijing is filled with monuments. Some are centuries old, like the Forbidden City and Qianmen Gate. Others, like the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong or Tiananmen Square itself, are more recent. But each of them mark eras in the city’s history. In the same way that Mao’s tomb underscores that man’s centrality to a point in time, or the Forbidden City calls out the grandeur that was late imperial China, another landmark came to symbolize the era of the 1990s: On April 23, 1992, the first McDonald’s in Beijing opened its doors.

The fast food restaurant was not subtle. It was the largest McDonald’s in the world, with more than two dozen cash registers and seating for 700 customers. Architecturally, it was a hodgepodge of modernism, art deco, and Chinese contemporary style, with flowing concrete and porthole windows, all covered in the tile facade that seemed mandatory for every building constructed in the 1990s.

Powerful forces were roiling the capital in 1992, and the Golden Arches were at the intersection of two of them: capitalism and the forced amnesia that the PRC leadership banked on to move past the legitimacy crisis and humanitarian disaster of spring 1989. Situated at the corner of Chang’an Avenue — less than three years removed from tanks rolling down that “Avenue of Eternal Peace” — and Wangfujing, its location could not have been more central. Not only was the store a few blocks from Tiananmen Square on the country’s most important thoroughfare, but Wangfujing was, along with Nanjing Road in Shanghai, the commercial showcase of China’s booming economy.

And booming it was. Anthropologist Yunxiang Yan, in his chapter “McDonald’s in Beijing: The Localization of Americana,” in the collection Golden Arches East, records that the Wangfujing location served 40,000 people on that first day, a record for the franchise at the time. Two more outlets opened the next year. Within five years there were three dozen restaurants in the city. (Even so, McDonald’s lagged far behind the fast-food-in-China success story of KFC, whose first location had opened near Tiananmen Square in 1987. That location became the franchise’s busiest, and served as an unofficial staging ground for the protests in the spring of 1989.)

McDonald’s was cheap fast food in the United States, easy to mock and just as easy to find. In China, it was something different: a status symbol for those who went there. Reportedly — and I don’t know if this is true, but everyone I knew in Beijing at the time repeated it to me — Party officials booked the restaurant for children’s birthday parties. Yan writes that young cosmopolitan Beijingers saw it as a window on the world: “The Big Mac doesn’t taste great,” one interviewee told him, “but the experience of eating in this place makes me feel good. Sometimes I even imagine that I am sitting in a restaurant in New York City or Paris.”

The idea that eating at McDonald’s in China might evoke eating there in the United States was an idea that many Americans wanted to believe (and that many in the Chinese leadership wanted to encourage). The universality of the Big Mac was a corporate strategy meant to sell hamburgers, but at that moment in Beijing, it was also a critical part of one of the most important public diplomacy campaigns of modern times: constructive engagement (or simply “engagement” for short).

The policy had originated in the early 1970s, crossing party lines and political profiles on both sides of the relationship. As it is popular to state, every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama pursued the policy. There is no strict definition — and much disagreement — on what constructive engagement means, never mind on whether or how well it works, but in general the notion is that the best way for Americans to effect positive change in China is to be present and in dialogue with the Chinese government and people. Many versions of engagement suggest that economic reform would lead to political reform. As Bill Clinton put it in a speech to students at Johns Hopkins University, “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people — their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise…[and] the genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle.”

McDonald’s, being one of America’s most widely exported brands as well as one most readily identified with the United States, was a convenient symbol. In 1996, Thomas Friedman suggested that no two nations with McDonald’s had ever gone to war with one another, supposed proof of the healing power of capitalism (the claim was not entirely true, though it’s not clear if it was meant to be an empirical fact or a general principle). In Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon’s film The Gate of Heavenly Peace about the 1989 government crackdown, there is a scene that appears to be Chinese McDonald’s employees laughing with Uncle Sam as part of a montage describing the early days of “Reform and Opening.” “Americans felt an enormous relief,” the narrator explains, illustrating how China had moved on from the era of Chairman Mao and thrown itself open to the West. “The Chinese are, after all, just like us. They want what we want, and maybe we can sell it to them.”

The scene is anachronistic. There were no McDonald’s in China during the 1980s (the first one in Hong Kong opened in 1975, but this was long before sovereignty over the territory switched to the People’s Republic, and one had opened in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen in 1990), so the employees must have been palling around with Uncle Sam some time later. But the symbolism of McDonald’s was powerful and justifies some artistic license. In fact, the opening of the Wangfujing McDonald’s might have been the perfect evocation of what engagement represented for both its critics and its supporters.

To its supporters, the opening was a hopeful sign that even in the aftermath of something as dark as the massacres of 1989, dialogue could continue. Rather than ostracizing or lecturing the PRC, the international community could keep its foot in the door and the lines of communication open. Coming back from something like Tiananmen would take time, but this was a tangible, if superficial, sign that the government was willing to let outside voices in.

To critics, a fast-food joint located mere steps away from where the infamous “Tank Man” photo had been taken was obscene. Values and beliefs were as easily sacrificed as the lives of protesters when it came to making a buck.

That was three decades ago. Today, the consensus in support of engagement has frayed. Orville Schell, one of the deans of American China watchers and a long-time supporter of engagement, wrote in his 2020 essay “The Death of Engagement” that the policy no longer makes sense in the context of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic policies. “Without political reform and the promise of China transitioning to become more soluble in the existing world order,” Schell writes, “engagement no longer has a logic for the U.S. Beijing’s inability to reform, evolve, and make the bilateral relationship more reciprocal, open and level finally rendered the policy inoperable.”

Of course, engagement is not a toggle switch. There is a range of options, on both sides of the U.S.-China relationship, for how the two nations can and should interact. Even the Wangfujing McDonald’s has changed: two years into its supposed 20-year lease, the company was told the location had to be demolished as part of renovation plans. The yellow-suited clown resisted for a while before relenting and moving to an office building some 200 yards away, where it continues to flip burgers. We could put a fine point on this, too: the promises of Beijing are empty? Or: with negotiation and compromise, both sides can get what they want.

But that might be too much to hang on a hamburger.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.