Mickey in GulagWorld: Enter Disney Shanghai

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 5/15/2014 02:00:00 AM
Wishing upon a CSR Death Star, you are.
I was originally going to entitle this post "Totalitarianism and Theme Parks" but I thought the better of it. Some of you will of course still complain that (a) there already a Disney park in China in Disneyland Hong Kong and that (b) jillions of Disney-licensed merchandise is already made in the PRC. So, it is too late to complain that China's authoritarianism fits poorly with Disney's family-friendly image. But I digress.

With holier-than-thou Hollywood types complaining about Brunei's human rights violations, the upcoming opening of a Disney park in mainland China should not go unnoticed. The interesting angle for me has always been the collision of Disney's commercialized and sanitized fairy-tale happy endings with real life's opposing penchant for messy, tabloid-nasty sad endings. The essential difference between Disney and China is that Disney is more concerned with the appearance of being one big, happy family whereas China is more concerned with acquiescence to a patriarchal leadership in the Communist Party. Are these two--illusion and patrimony--mutually exclusive? That is the question Disney Shanghai will face.

Actually, there already is a planned community which Disney has created that certainly does not always play host happy endings. Celebration, Florida (pop. 7,427) has been around for about a decade, and it's been an interesting social experiment:
Celebration isn’t perfect in the Stepford Wives, Truman Show way that it invokes with its Disney connection and emphasis on uniformity—there have actually been a few documented murders in Celebration and Potochney recalls clandestine drug use by teens like in any other town—but the residents have a palpable pride. It stems from a sense of connectivity and community that careful planning often provides, and that hopefully we can learn from and try to implement in less logically structured neighborhoods in the country.
So residents of Celebration kill each other and shoot up drugs like in any other American town. However, that it is still an all-American town means that few compare it to the Disney ideal. Do not expect the same treatment for Disney Shanghai. So many years on after it joined the WTO in 2011, we have hardly noticed Bill Clinton's liberal ideal that economic freedom will eventually cause Chinese residents to clamor for political freedom. Just think of the possibilities for protesters--I'm sure Disney itself is already building up its rhetorical defense for when the time comes:
  1. When You Wish Upon a Star - Jiminy Cricket tells us that it makes no difference who you are; anything your heart desires will come to you. However, what if you are the Uighurs or Tibetans wising for self-determination, or at least more political autonomy? Xinjiang province where the Uighurs live has been subject to Commmunist Party repopulation campaigns to make them a minority there. Same banana with the Tibetans who've been subject to their own repopulation efforts. Can you say "Chinese West Bank"?
  2. It's a Small World After All - this standard ride in all Disney theme park extols the virtue of respecting differences in a Kantian sense since "there's so much that we share." Aside from hardly being applicable to China's separatist movements, Chinese work camps or laogai do not seem to square with China being a small world after all. Why would you need to re-educate your people while hosting a theme park that lauds unity in diversity? 
  3. Circle of Life - this Elton John classic from The Lion King is a really memorable, upbeat tune. It too does not seem to jibe with a country that still implements a one-child policy whose violation by the poor and marginalized is likely to result in forced abortions.
I hardly think China will change the practices mentioned above to ensure Disney doesn't get a a bum rap helping enrich the folks who violate all sorts of trite, do-gooder sentiments expressed in song. Sometime ago I discussed money-grubbing American Yale University whitewashing concerns about freedom of speech to set up shop in Singapore, while the more circumspect British Warwick University decided against doing so. Americans, especially the commercial behemoth that is Disney, probably couldn't care less that the CSR concerns in China are far, far greater than those of Singapore for as long as they're not brought up. Again, the problem for Disney is that it is the world's leading purveyor of lachrymose sentiments about the goodness of this world while working closely with a regime that tries to keep 1.3 billion persons in line by almost any means necessary.

Indeed, why are there so many songs about rainbows when we kind of know what's on the "other side"? To paraphrase Elton John, I'm afraid I do not necessarily feel the love tonight--but I do see the commercial po$$ibilities. As the capitalists have pumped in another $800 million into this project, it should be quite a show. Mark your calendars for December 2015, and try not to feel so bad about radical levels of inequality in this self-styled "worker's paradise" of a country as you take photos with Gonzo, Princess Leia, Winnie the Pooh and heaven knows how many more characters Disney have already bought.

You may even want to try out to be a "cast member" who is contractually obliged to be perpetually cheery in that shallow and vacuous American way: just forget about the poor sods unable to afford a ticket into the Happiest Place on Earth. Really, it's a whole new world (after you get in the gates)--don't you dare close your eyes.