Coca-Cola is celebrating 35 years in China in 2014. One of the world’s fastest-growing markets today is the third-largest market in the Coca-Cola system.

With 43 plants, 10 brands and more than 50 flavors of different beverages to delight and refresh the country’s vast population, we are excited to have grown alongside China over the last 35 years. We have been here through the tides of change, the transition to a market economy and the emergence of the modern Chinese consumer. It hasn’t been an easy task, but it has always been an exciting journey – one that started with a single shipment of imported Coca-Cola.

It’s a journey that began back in 1979, when Coca-Cola became one of the first international companies to re-enter the market following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the restoration of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. With China on his radar, Coca-Cola Chairman Paul Austin asked Peter Lee, a chemist in Coca-Cola’s lab who had been put on assignment to check out the company’s Far East base in Hong Kong, to see what China was up to. Lee reached out to what would later become our biggest partner there, but it was far from smooth-sailing. Months of radio silence passed before Coca-Cola was finally invited to Beijing for discussion.

On December 13, 1978, Coca-Cola signed a historic agreement with the Chinese government to sell Coca-Cola in China – not to the Chinese population, but to the surge of tourists taking advantage of the newly established Open Door Policy. The world sat up and took notice, for Coca-Cola had broken through diplomatic barriers and was officially the first international company to make it back into China. Initially just sold in foreign hotels and “Friendship” stores to international visitors for foreign exchange, Coca-Cola was shipped in from Hong Kong and only distributed in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The first shipment was just 20,000 cases – a far cry from the 140 million daily servings enjoyed by the people of China today.

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola China looked at creative ways to work with the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises to set up bottling plants and operations that could locally produce Coca-Cola for sale to Chinese consumers. It wasn’t an easy path – firstly, the industry in China was under-developed, and we had to construct our first plant from scratch while building the capacity of our suppliers – from bottle caps to packaging and distribution. Secondly, at first, the Chinese found the taste of Coca-Cola odd and foreign. Our flagship drink may have been famous world over for its ice-cold, refreshing taste – but in China, the population of a billion people had a distinct preference for hot drinks over cold ones, and likened the taste to Chinese medicine when the product was served warm. So we had to transform the mindset of one of the largest populations on earth to consume our drink ice-cold, as is across the globe.

This was no mean feat, but we achieved this through years of immersion and integrating ourselves into the fabric of China over 35 years – developing new products, launching innovative marketing campaigns that continue to touch the people of China, committing to initiatives that have fostered goodwill and promoted well-being, and by supporting community projects across the country. Today, our Global Innovation and Technical Center in Shanghai is our biggest in Asia and the second largest in the world. We developed and first launched Minute Maid Pulpy in China, leading the development of juice drinks in China through the innovation of adding pulp. Minute Maid Pulpy became one of our billion-dollar brands within five years – the first from the developing market.  Five years later, the launch of Minute Maid Pulpy Super Milky in China became first dairy product of the Coca-Cola global system.

We didn’t win the hearts and minds of our Chinese consumers with our products alone. By creating unique experiences and becoming a part of defining moments in the country’s history, Coca-Cola China brought refreshment and moments of happiness to all our Chinese consumers. We launched the 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign, when China presented its first team for inclusion. Though our sponsorship of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, we brought China the passing of the Olympic Flame, the Olympic Torch Relay and a series of special programs. Last year, the success of the “Coke Nickname Bottle” campaign led to its adaptation in other markets.

Indeed, the last 50 years speak of China’s coming of age with a flourishing economy and a new generation of people. We’ve always endeavored to understand the impact of our work and to integrate community issues into our business as engineers of change. In tandem with the nation’s growth, we’ve contributed to disaster relief efforts, supported children from underprivileged areas and orphans with AIDS. We’ve committed to addressing water resource issues and championed energy saving and climate change campaigns amongst many other initiatives.

This is how our journey has become intertwined with China’s as the country continues to define itself for a new era and a new generation. Coca-Cola has devoted some nine billion dollars to its work in China to date, but beyond plants and infrastructure, we are proudest that our investment supports many community programs across the country. Project Hope, a partnership between Coca-Cola and the China Youth Development Foundation, has gone on to build 121 Hope Schools in 29 provinces throughout China. Earlier this year, together with the One Foundation, we hosted “Walk for Love” – a charitable hiking campaign where 4,000 hikers challenged the 50-kilometer mountain roads to raise donations for the Clean Water Project, to provide clean drinking water to children in rural areas, These are but a few examples.

Coca-Cola in China has grown from very humble beginnings. From selling only imported Coca-Cola to tourists in hotels, our consumers across the country today enjoy 140 million servings daily. It has been a phenomenal journey. In this spirit, here’s to Coca-Cola’s 35th anniversary in China and more things to come!

We invited several Coca-Cola leaders to weigh in on the milestone:

Henrique Braun

President, Coca-Cola Greater China
“We are where we are today because we grew in a sustainable way, in a super complex growing market. Coca-Cola China operates in a very local way, with open and aligned development of the country and company over 35 years. With 43 plants today, we are a flagship brand here with a distinct responsibility to lead – in the industry, in our community programs, and with our efforts in innovation.“

David Brooks
Executive Vice President, Coca-Cola Greater China
David recounts Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, a pivotal moment in China’s modern history. “The Games weren’t just about Beijing or the Olympics. For the Chinese population, it was about China announcing itself on the world stage, the “100 Year Games” to break down commonly-held views from the outside world. We asked people what they wanted to feature – and it wasn’t the Chinese warriors and typical icons – the Chinese wanted to smash stereotypes and showcase a modern China – something Coca-Cola was very honored to be a part of.”

Peter Lee
First President of Coca-Cola China
Dr. Peter Lee, a Chinese-American born in China, joined the corporate R&D team of The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia in 1972 – before eventually becoming the first president of Coca-Cola China in 1979. After inking a historic agreement with the Chinese government to bring Coca-Cola into China in 1979, Peter remembers the humble origins of the company: it started with a single imported shipment before becoming the giant that supplies Chinese consumers with 140 million servings every day.  

“The first shipment of 20,000 cases was shipped via China Travel Services in January 1979. For historical purposes, 10,000 cases for Beijing; 7000 cases for Guangzhou, and 3,000 cases for Shanghai. Today, 140 million servings of Coca-Cola products are enjoyed in China every day.

"Without ice, Coca-Cola tasted like medicine to the Chinese. Winning first-time drinkers of Coca-Cola was quite a taxing experience, but also very rewarding.  For example, a convert quipped: “The first time I drank Coca-Cola, I did not like it. When I drank it the second time, I began to find it curious, and the third time I tried the chilled drink, I loved it!”

George Shen
Original employee, Coca-Cola Greater China
George has been with Coca-Cola China since the company built its first plant in China, and remains there today. He holds the largest collection of Coca-Cola China memorabilia of any employee, and describes his first interactions with the flagship product and the company. 
“I had several jobs before I came to Coca-Cola 35 years ago, which included working on a boat after many years of labour in the countryside. As part of the boat crew, each time we finished a job the captain would give us two cans of Coca-Cola as a reward. I would take them home because they were such a luxury – we knew Coca-Cola as an American brand, something we would never have the chance to touch, out of reach for the average man. So I would save the cans the captain gave me for family gatherings and festivals. The first time I opened a can of Coke on the boat, I got a fright – the boat had shaken it up so much the can sprayed everywhere! I had no idea I would eventually spend the most important years of my life working for the company that produced this wonderful drink.”