The news that Disney will be building a new theme park in Shanghai appears to be a no-brainer from a business standpoint: what company wouldn't want a foothold in a nation with a booming economy and over one billion consumers? Wealthy Chinese travelers sometimes visit other Disney theme parks located in the U.S., Paris or the more convenient Hong Kong. But having a location on mainland China will make it even easier for the entertainment conglomerate to become a part of modern Chinese culture. Yet, could Disney's presence there do much to open up media access for the rest of the West? A Bloomberg article says no, but I think it might.
First, here's the essential problem that Bloomberg wonders whether the Shanghai park might help:
China censors material critical of the ruling Communist Party through control of publication licenses, state-ownership of TV and radio stations and by blocking access to Internet sites such as Google Inc.'s Youtube. Those restrictions led News Corp. Chairman Murdoch to say in 2005 that his company had hit a "brick wall" in China.
The idea of Mickey, Minnie and Donald Duck characters walking around a bunch of shops and rides isn't like to conjure up the beginnings of a populist revolt. After all, Disney is about as benign as American media gets. So it isn't surprising that some experts doubt that this park will do much change the Chinese government's censorship goals. Bloomberg reports one analyst saying:
"Disney's park will mostly be a boost for its retail business in China, not media," said Duncan Clark, Chairman of Beijing-based consulting firm BDA China. "The only way they could get this park in China is by keeping it separate from their media business."
I'm sure that's true. Chinese officials aren't foolish, so they wouldn't allow the introduction of Disney's theme park to undermine their broader controls over the content that gets to their people. But I think this assessment, while true, might miss the bigger picture.
With something like censorship in China, tiny, incremental changes matter. There was a time when the Chinese government would never have even considered allowing a park whose theme was created by an American entertainment firm on its mainland. It's pretty clear that its focus on global economics has done a lot to broaden its philosophy.
Of course, the government's mind isn't completely open, or it would not continue to subject its people to censorship. But the presence of Western companies like Disney in China should help to enhance the intellectual curiosity of its people about other cultures and ideas. Again, the process would be quite gradual, but eventually a greater Western presence will encourage the Chinese people to demand their government tear down barriers to information.
So I agree with another expert who says:
"The market is being opened more and more but media is a sensitive industry in China and any changes will only happen very slowly," said Professor Ding Xueliang, who teaches courses on political, economic and social development in China at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
But this theme park is a change, and a step in the right direction. Nothing is likely to instantly shatter the censorship wall, but as new foreign influences enter China's consciousness that wall will begin to come down slowly, one brick at a time.
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