Disney’s new China conundrum

The American entertainment behemoth’s apolitical approach has seen it flourish in China—but that era may be coming to an end

It is not an exaggeration to say that Disney is a household name in China and synonymous with childhood and sweet nostalgia. Since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on CCTV in 1986, Disney characters and their stories have been an important part of the collective childhood memory of Chinese people. Iconic characters like Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh made deep lasting impressions, partially because there were few domestic creativations that were as sophisticated and memorable in those early years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Despite the inherently foreign Americanness Disney characters exuded, they became familiar and beloved friends to Chinese children.

Disney came to be China’s undisputed “guardian of childhood” and arguably the most beloved Western brand in the entire country, not just for children, but also young adults like Steve and Dalila, who tend to be highly selective when it comes to brand loyalty.

But as tension mounts between the US and China over trade, politics and human rights, it’s increasingly challenging for prominent brands like Disney to stay clear of these issues. In fact, no foreign brand in China can avoid contending with an unyielding authoritarian government more determined than ever to control every narrative on China, as well as consumers whose appetite for foreign goods are increasingly tempered by nationalistic pride.

Can the House of Mouse accomplish this without tarnishing its potently wholesome brand image?

To access this post, you must purchase Subscription, Regular, Regular – Annual, Regular – Monthly or Student.

Illustrations by Swati Addanki.


Subscribe to read this story and more
100+ new, deeply reported stories and 50+ shorts a year
Things Change, TMC’s weekly newsletter
Full access to the archives