Observations of an Expat: The Battle of the Theme Parks

June 3, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Tom Arms

The troops are lining up for the battle of the theme parks in China. On one side are Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Co. On the other are a battalion of dragons and 4,000 years of civilisation.

At stake is a big slice of the $610 billion Chinese tourism market. But then there is more—the values of two increasingly competitive cultures—China v. the American-led West.

On the 16th June Disney opens its sixth cookie cutter Magic Kingdom theme park on the outskirts of Shanghai. The cost? $5.5 billion. This past week Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin opened his $3.3 billion Chinese equivalent Wanda City.

Wang is no lightweight. It is a toss-up between him and Ali Baba founder Jack Ma as to who is the richest man in China. Wang is building on a global real estate empire to try and corner the entertainment world. He now owns the world’s largest chain of movie theaters, bought Hollywood film production company Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion and plans to open 15 more theme parks over the next four years.

Wang is rich. He is also politically well connected. He is known to be close to President Xi Jinping. This is not surprising. You don’t become rich and famous in China without good political connections. And those whom the Party has enriched are expected to deliver the Party’s message.

Wang performed well  on the state-controlled China Central Television when he recently declared that his aim was to establish a global brand based on Chinese culture. He then added the opening salvo: “The days of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are over.”

The top priority for Wang and the Chinese elite is to protect Brand China from Westernization. Once they have secured the market of 1.3 billion Chinese, they plan to use it as a springboard from which to launch a cultural offensive on the rest of the world. They have already set up more than 500 Chinese language centres through the Confucius Institute and are planning a 1,000 worldwide by 2020. One hundred million are currently studying the Chinese language.

The Chinese are new to the game, but they are fast becoming adept at what is known as “soft diplomacy” or “soft power”. The term was coined by American international affairs expert Joseph Nye back in 1990. British academic Jonathan McClory has moved it along by developing  a world ranking for soft power. At the moment America and Britain are at the top of McClory’s index. China is well down the list… but  rising. Basically, soft power means promoting your national culture and values through mediums such as film, television, sport, literature and… yes, theme parks. The aim is to persuade the rest of the world to like you. And the thinking behind it is that people like to deal with people they like.

For centuries soft power played second fiddle to the hard power diplomacy of guns, tanks and gunboats allied to tough talking trade negotiators. But as the limitations and cost of military power have become increasingly apparent in recent years, the appeal of soft power diplomacy has grown.

The Anglo-Saxon world has had the soft power edge for a long time. Throughout the Nineteenth and a big chunk of the Twentieth Century the British Empire was a vehicle for British values as well as trade and gunboats. In the postwar period American financial muscle combined forces with Hollywood to pick up the baton. Language continues to give them the advantage. If anything is said to be the world’s first international language it is English. For half a billion it is their first language and for another 1.3 billion it is their second language. That means that about a quarter of the world’s population speak fluent English.

But the Chinese are a proud and determined people. Which means that Mickey has to continue to work hard if he is going to maintain the image of America as “The shining city on the hill.”






Tom Arms broadcasts on world affairs for a number of US radio stations including WTKF at http://www.wtkf107.com/. His Weekly Viewpoints discussion programme can be heard at 1830 EST on Wednesdays and his LookAhead at the next week’s main events on Fridays at 1800.


LookAhead Radio World Report for week commencing 6th June:





Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, www.fensinformation.com) which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

Follow Tom Arms on Twitter and Linkedin


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment this post!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.