|Shirt worn by a woman in Hengyang, Hunan|
In minutes Disney will open a new park to the public in Shanghai. Some see it as an opportunity with deeper implications than an increased number of authentic Mickey Mouses in China. Last month, Graham Webster, a senior fellow of The China Center at Yale Law School, briefly commented on a tweet about a meeting between Disney CEO Robert Iger and Chinese President Xi Jinping:
Western influence https://t.co/qTxSZdrZmG— Graham Webster (@gwbstr) May 5, 2016
I replied to Webster's tweet with a similarly brief comment:
Chinese influence https://t.co/7bRyjvvCd2— Brian Glucroft (@BrianGlucroft) May 5, 2016
My aim wasn't to refute Webster's point but to highlight the other side of the coin. It isn't clear how this coin is balanced.
David Barboza and Brooks Barnes in The New York Times recently provided an example from the past showing how Disney accepted the influence couldn't go just one way:
[In 1997] Disney agreed to back the director Martin Scorsese, who wanted to make “Kundun,” about China’s oppression of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The Chinese government, which considers the Dalai Lama a separatist, denounced the project and pressured Disney to abandon it.Disney's change of heart raises the question of how much of the content in Disney's movies has since been influenced to some degree, directly or indirectly, by a desire to not hurt the feelings of the Chinese government.
In the end, Disney decided that it could not let an overseas government influence its decision to distribute a movie in the United States. “Kundun” was released, and China retaliated by banning Disney films . . .
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.
And Disney is now aiding Chinese influence in other ways:
Disney is going to extraordinary lengths to prove its commitment to China and the Communist Party. During a 2010 meeting with China’s propaganda minister, Mr. Iger pledged to use the company’s global platform to “introduce more about China to the world.” And he has done just that.Barboza and Barnes also provide examples of how Disney has made a park that is "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese." Some of this is similar to how other American companies have localized their products or services in China, such as Pizza Hut's durian pizza or Walmart's larger selection of live seafood. Yet with its movies and its parks' immersive experiences, Disney has the power to influence in ways Pizza Hut or Walmart can't. The Chinese government clearly appreciates this and wishes to contain Disney in a variety of ways, though other factors are at play, such as wanting local companies to receive a large piece of the profitable opportunities Disney generates.
So not only is it uncertain what any success for Disney in China would mean for Western, or more specifically American, influence, Disney shows how an American company's ambitions can lead to China having more influence beyond its borders. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. China undoubtedly has much it can positively contribute to the world. But most Americans don't want the Chinese government to have any ability to restrict the content of movies which appear in the U.S.
As the full NYT piece details, Disney has made a number of unusual sacrifices in order to operate in the mainland China market. For them to pay off, Disney's ultimate concern won't be the balance of American and Chinese influence it facilitates. They are simply pieces of a puzzle in reaching another goal.
Disney cares about Disney influence most.