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Disney in China

NYT sheds light on the backroom deals behind Shanghai Disneyland, which had already hosted a million people before officially opening three days ago:

The Shanghai park… has become mission critical for Disney as it faces business pressures in other areas like cable. It is designed to be a machine in China for the Disney brand, with a manicured Magic Kingdom-style park, “Toy Story”-themed hotel and Mickey Avenue shopping arcade. More than 330 million people live within a three-hour drive or train ride, and Disney is bent on turning them into lifelong consumers.


Shanghai Disneyland (via SCMP)

The article tracks Disney’s history of doing business in China, from post-Reform “Sunday evening placement for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons on the country’s biggest state-run broadcaster”, to mounting success at the cinema in the ’90s (The Lion King killed here), to a blanket ban after the 1997 Disney release of Scorsese’s Kundun. Then-CEO Michael Eisner hired a stone-cold mercenary to smooth out negotiations after that gaffe:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

Ouch. The article then goes on to itemize the unprecedented lengths to which current Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has gone to make Shanghai Disneyland a reality, including courting a personal relationship with Xi Jinping:

After Mr. Iger learned that Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader, had visited Disneyland in 1980, he pressed his staff to find a photograph. A color photograph shows the president’s father, who died in 2002, wearing a Mao suit, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Mr. Iger presented it to the Chinese leader as a gift and a symbol of their partnership.

More interesting are the rights and profits that Disney has ceded to China in hammering out the deal. In short, this really is Disneyland with Chinese characteristics, or, in the motto coined by Iger, “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”: no rides or attractions are repeated from previous parks, and the grounds are adorned with “indigenous trees from all around China, including a 59-foot chestnut oak from Zhejiang province”. The park itself will be surrounded by the “distinctly Chinese” feature of dense, redundant high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels, since the adjoining land is controlled by Shendi Group, a consortium of four State-owned enterprises including a property developer.

In other locales, Disney has typically maintained a firm grip on the immediately adjacent real estate. Shendi wants to use such land for hotels, spas and retail, like its new Shanghai Village, a 590,000-square-foot outlet mall, with luxury shops selling Armani, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and other brands.


Disney against Commies

The NYT article does not mention, because it’s obvious or irrelevant or both, that Walt Disney, probably America’s greatest 20th century propagandist, considered Communism a dire ideological threat. From his wiki:

In 1946 he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization who stated they “believ[ed] in, and like, the American Way of Life … we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators; Disney stated that the 1941 strike led by them was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.

Communism’s certainly traveled a long way, from ideological arch-enemy to “sharing the keys to the Magic Kingdom” in a short 70 years.

The NYT article does say that “Shanghai Disneyland is triggering concerns about American cultural imperialism”. Curious to see how that works out. To me it seems more like the latest spike in a long-term trend of cultural imperialism in reverse, as China continues to buy the Hollywood machine piecemeal and subtly tailor its content from within (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). But that’s a topic worth more thought than I want to give it right now.


Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

I had a few private laughs when reading this article, comparing it with an anecdote that came out of a recent interview I did with Chinese artist Li Xinjian. Li worked closely with Robert Rauschenberg when the American artist visited China for exhibits in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985, as part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. I interviewed Li for an article (forthcoming in the July issue of Time Out Beijing) about Rauschenberg in China, which opened at UCCA in Beijing last weekend. He describes this incident after the December 1985 opening of ROCI Tibet:

He had over 60 works in the exhibition, plus five or six installations and 10 video works. There were not many TVs in Tibet back then. Local people were really delighted to see TVs. The video works had some Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck footage, the Tibetans thought it was fun. So they stared at the TV. How could they ever understand those installations and silk-screen paintings? If we understand Rauschenberg as trying to sell American culture, then maybe he really wanted normal people, ordinary people to understand his work, his art concept. But when he saw the Tibetans turning the scripture wheel, then happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not willing to leave, he got angry. He told us to turn off all of the TVs except for the two playing his documentaries.

Seems Mickey and Donald work like capitalism itself, coldly indifferent to the intentions of maker and critic alike.

Published in China


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