Hidden History

How Coca-Cola Came to China, 40 Years Ago

The sugar trap of market normalization – Ramsey Fahs

On December 13, 1978, two days before the announcement of Sino-American normalization, Coca-Cola became the first foreign corporation allowed back in to the People’s Republic of China. Representatives of President Jimmy Carter, another of Georgia’s more famous exports, had to politely request that Coke delay announcing the deal to avoid the embarrassment of the US being beaten to the diplomatic punch by a purveyor of carbonated sugar-water.

Coca-Cola was an unlikely candidate for this particular milestone. In the decades prior to the agreement, the company had eagerly tied its business practices to the American government’s aim of defeating global communism and promoting democracy. In China, meanwhile, anti-American propaganda smeared Coca-Cola as one of the worst incarnations of American imperialism. Yet the little-known story of how Coke, which celebrated its 40th anniversary of normalized relations with China in December, went from imperialist shill to the first foreign brand welcomed back to the PRC illustrates forces that still define the economic relationship between China and American business.