Soy latte with a shot of diplomacy? China’s leader asks ex-Starbucks CEO to help fix Sino-U.S. ties

A man walks past a Starbucks coffee shop in Beijing in August 2018.
(Wang Zhao / AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping has appealed to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to help repair Sino-U.S. relations, which have plunged to their lowest level in decades amid a tariff war and tension over technology and security.

Xi wrote a letter to Schultz “to encourage him and Starbucks to continue to play an active role in promoting Chinese-U.S. economic and trade cooperation and the development of bilateral relations,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

The text of the letter — a rare direct communication from China’s paramount leader to a foreign business figure — was not released. Xinhua said Xi was responding to a letter from Schultz that congratulated the Chinese president on “the completion of a well-off society” under his leadership, Xinhua said.


Schultz opened Starbucks’ first China outlet in 1999 and is a frequent visitor to the country.

Xinhua gave no indication whether the letter reflected a Chinese initiative to ask American corporate leaders to help change policy after President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week.

Economists and political analysts say Biden is likely to try to revive cooperation with Beijing over North Korea and other political issues. But few changes on trade are expected because of widespread frustration in Washington over China’s human rights record and accusations of technology theft.

China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, sees himself as a savior, anointed to steer the Communist Party and China away from corruption and foreign influence, into a ‘new era’ of prosperity, power and political devotion. Whether his vision matches reality is another question.

Oct. 22, 2020

The Chinese Cabinet’s press office did not immediately respond to questions about what Xi wanted Schultz to do and whether he had contacted other American business leaders.

Schultz, who was Starbucks CEO until 2017 and chairman until 2018, led an aggressive expansion that made China its biggest market outside the U.S. Starbucks says it has more than 4,700 stores and 58,000 employees in almost 190 Chinese cities.

Schultz said in 2019 that he was considering running for president as an independent but later dropped the idea.