China Power

The Manner Coffee Case: Trending Terms, Income Inequality, and China’s Private Sector

Recent Features

China Power | Economy | East Asia

The Manner Coffee Case: Trending Terms, Income Inequality, and China’s Private Sector

A recent Baidu trending search term reveals Beijing’s continued efforts to suppress the private sector.

The Manner Coffee Case: Trending Terms, Income Inequality, and China’s Private Sector
Credit: Facebook

On June 22, a search term, which is also the title of an article, “the founders of Manner Coffee have a combined net worth of 7.2 billion yuan, making them included in the 2024 Hurun Global Rich List” began trending on the Chinese internet, ranking as the fourth-most popular term on Baidu Hot Search that day.

The search term stems from two incidents at Manner Coffee outlets in Shanghai that both occurred on June 17, and went viral on the Chinese internet. In one instance, a male staff member physically clashed with a customer, while at a different location, a female staff member poured coffee grounds on a patron.

Despite Manner Coffee’s prompt apology, in which they assured the public they would enhance employee training and service awareness, streamline store operations to reduce customer wait times, and improve barista well-being after the two incidents, it nevertheless sparked fervent discussions online.

The majority of internet users sided with the staff members. Some even disclosed information about harsh working conditions, with one alleged former barista complaining that each employee has to make 500 cups of coffee in eight hours, leaving them no time to use the bathroom. The former barista also said that staff are paid poorly, only 4,000 Chinese yuan (approximately $550), during the two-month internship period. 

First established in 2015 as a single roadside stall in Shanghai, Manner Coffee expanded drastically to over 1,000 locations in China by October 2023. Its rapid growth coincided with a period in which China’s coffee industry was dominated by major players like Starbucks, Luckin, and Cotti. The brand sets itself apart by targeting a younger crowd, and has become known for its creamy flat whites, chic store design, and prices 30 to 40 percent lower than those of Western chains.

Unlike the first wave of debates, which mostly focused on the right and wrong of the baristas’ and customers’ behavior, this trending search term places special emphasis on the wealth of Manner Coffee’s founders. The article referenced in the search term is structured to create an innuendo. It begins by recounting the incidents at two Manner Coffee outlets in Shanghai, quoting former baristas complaining about working conditions and low pay. It concludes with the statement that “the founder of Manner Coffee frequently appears on various billionaire lists.” The article clearly aims to implicitly direct public anger toward the founders’ tremendous, accumulated wealth by highlighting the contrast between the affluence of the founders and the impoverishment of its typical employees.

The huge gap in income inequality between a company’s top executives and its typical employees is not limited to China. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, CEOs in the U.S. were paid 399 times as much as a typical worker in 2021. What is unique in the Manner Coffee case is that the trending title and the article itself are evidently government-approved, as multiple major news sources, such as Xinhua, Sohu, and Tencent News, have posted the exact same title and content on their websites. Consequently, this has successfully elicited public fury toward Manner Coffee’s founder. Comments posted under the trending search term accuse the founders of being “capitalists who exploit the blood and sweat of the working people.”

This again reflects Beijing’s bias and hostility toward the private sector, despite its rhetoric in support of it. 

On one hand, Beijing is sending out positive signals in an attempt to boost confidence among private sector businesses. In 2024, there were two State Council Executive Meetings, one on February 2 and the other on April 26, that focused on “further optimizing the business environment,” specifically building a “market-oriented, rule of law-based, and internationalized top-notch business environment.” During the same year, China also began drafting a Private Economy Promotion Law that would codify equal treatment of state-owned, private, and foreign businesses while protecting the property rights of private entrepreneurs. 

On the other hand, the private share of overall business investment dropped from its peak of nearly 60 percent in 2014 to only 50 percent in 2023, as Chinese government policies have consistently favored state control of the economy to the detriment of private firms. Since 2013, the state sector has expanded, and there has been tightened political oversight and a regulatory crackdown on the private sector since 2021. This crackdown was justified under the banner of “Common Prosperity,” a political slogan promoted by Beijing to bolster social equality and economic equity.

The insinuation in the trending search term related to the Manner Coffee case is another example of how China’s support of the private sector is often lip service and, at times, self-contradictory.