NEWS ANALYSIS — News that Walt Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger is up for being named U.S. Ambassador to China by President-Elect Joe Biden has produced strong pushback from conservative circles, which allege the executive’s cozy relationship with Chinese government officials is the wrong signal for the United States going forward.
Should Iger be named to the position, it would represent a crowning cap to a 46-year corporate career that has seen Disney embrace China across its business segments under Iger and current CEO Bob Chapek.
In addition to operating two amusement parks in China — Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland — Disney is one of the world’s largest licensing operators, with much of its merchandise manufactured and sold in China. J.P. Morgan analyst Alexia Quadrani contends that before the coronavirus pandemic, the two amusement parks contributed $1 billion in revenue and about $50 million in operating profit to Disney annually.
In 2018, about 66 Disney-licensed products were sold in China every second, according to Kermid Rahman, VP and GM of Marvel and Consumer Products Commercialization for The Walt Disney Company Greater China and Korea. Speaking to China Daily, Rahman said the Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars brands worked with more than 600 licensees throughout China.
In Iger’s recently published memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, the executive recounted myriad interactions with Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping.
“The creation of the [theme] park was an education in geopolitics, and a constant balancing act between the possibilities of global expansion and the perils of cultural imperialism,” Iger wrote. “The overwhelming challenge, which I repeated to our team so often it became a mantra for everyone working on the project, was to create an experience that was ‘authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.'”
The latter is what some critics say underscores Disney’s growing subservience to the Chinese government in return for financial gain.
Indeed, on the theatrical side, Disney filmed some of its recent live-action movie Mulan in China’s Xinjiang province, a region where human rights groups allege ethnic Uyghur Muslims have been subjected to abuse by the erstwhile Communist government.
In recent years, Disney-owned ESPN reportedly came under fire for not calling out the NBA’s strained relationship with China regarding a coach’s comments about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
With the outgoing Trump Administration at odds with China regarding trade, intellectual property and high-tech issues — underscored by a 2019 trade deficit that topped $345 billion — Iger’s potential ambassadorship has been put in the political crosshairs.
Earlier this year, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned that “if Disney and other American corporations continue to bow to Beijing, they risk undermining their own future competitiveness and prosperity as well as the classical liberal order that has allowed them to thrive.”
“The Biden administration shouldn’t put Iger — or any other entertainment industry bigwig, for that matter — in charge of diplomatic relations with China,” Sunny Bunch wrote in The Washington Post.
“Iger … is qualified to negotiate with Beijing, but for all the wrong reasons — cozy ties, long relationships, and tolerance for the government’s terrible conduct,” Emily Jashinsky wrote in The Federalist.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham Dec. 16 suggested Iger’s selection would be keeping with what she alleges will be the Biden Administration’s “soft-on-Beijing policy.”
“The [local] government there got a special thanks credit in the film [Mulan],” Ingraham said.