Mickey, Maoists team up for some magic

HONG KONG — Walt Disney has teamed up with an unlikely partner to introduce China to the wonders of Mickey Mouse: the country’s Communist Youth League, founded and inspired by Chairman Mao.

The collaboration, which Western diplomats have privately dubbed “Mickey Mao,” aims to harness the power of the 70-million strong communist movement to promote Disney characters to Chinese children.

Instead of indoctrinating young people in the communist ideology of Mao Tse-tung and the supremacy of the party, the league is beginning to inculcate a new generation in the delights of Donald Duck and the Lion King.

The benefit to Disney, one of the best-known faces of capitalism, is clear enough. It wants children in one of the world’s fastest-growing markets to become familiar with its products before the planned opening of the Disneyland theme park in Hong Kong in 2006.

Access to the Communist Party organization has been granted because the project has received funding from the Beijing-backed Hong Kong administration. The administration is investing $2.8 billion in return for a 57 percent stake and a similar share of its profits — plus a handshake from Mickey Mouse for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, when the deal was finalized last month.

It is the first time that a Disney theme park has received direct government funding and Chinese officials are expecting fast returns on their investment. Revenues are projected to reach up to $19 billion over the next 40 years. The authorities anticipate up to 5.6 million visitors to the Magic Kingdom each year. To hit that target, they must attract almost 2 million people from mainland China.

Disney’s brand building will not be entirely straightforward: Most Chinese know little of traditional Western stories or their meanings, and few have ever heard of Sleeping Beauty or Winnie the Pooh.

The attempt to persuade young Chinese and their parents to trade Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book for Mickey Mouse ears, books, music and video materials has begun in China’s relatively affluent southern provinces, where annual salaries of more than $8,500 are common — more than eight times the average of inland regions.

The league has started singing and story-telling sessions with groups of 50 children in the boom town of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong. At official “youth palaces” throughout the country, “Communists” ages from 6 to 12 are taught Disney’s most popular stories.

At one such event, rows of excited children leaped to their feet to practice Disney singalongs, a far cry from the staid propaganda they are taught. Until now, even children’s cartoons have had an underlying political purpose. China’s most popular television series features a blue cat that spends much of its time attempting to solve scientific problems approved by the Communist Party.

The first 500 children to take part in trial sessions have been so delighted that Disney and its communist partners are confident the brand will take off. With Beijing’s backing, it is likely to expand quickly across other provinces and cities.

“The education system in China is changing to encourage greater imagination and creativity, and that’s what our business is about,” said Irene Chan, the vice president of public affairs for Hong Kong Disneyland.

A Communist Party official in Guangdong said: “Disney has been working hard to portray its wholesome family entertainment as apolitical and not being at odds with the Chinese Communist Party, which has helped smooth the alliance. But this is really a commercial decision to raise the profile of Disneyland, Hong Kong. I’m sure both sides will be happy with the arrangement.”

China’s president, Hu Jintao, is a former head of the Young Communist League, regarded as a training ground for the elite, and his personal approval for the collaboration with Disney was essential.

Disney executives are arranging for characters, including Goofy and Donald Duck, to tour some of China’s department stores. A magazine aimed at winning 1.8 million subscribers has been introduced and a limited range of cartoons are being broadcast on state-controlled television.

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