Magic Kingdom Meets the Middle Kingdom: Cultural Competency at its Finest

With the recent Trump-China back and forth, I couldn’t help but recall my VIP visit to the opening of the Disney theme park in Shanghai earlier this year. Lots of symbolism then, and now. We all wonder what it means for US-China relations.

For me, the June opening expressed the utter improbability that two global kingdoms could possibly come together in such an unlikely partnership. The Magic Kingdom meets the Middle Kingdom (the term the Chinese use to describe their country) — the Magic Kingdom, the symbol of modern American entertainment, and the Middle Kingdom, the symbol of one of the most powerful countries in the world…communism with Chinese characters. Both combined in a massive theme park in Shanghai. Who would have predicted such a partnership? Is it a fluke or a marker for future US-China cooperation?

I was a passenger on a turbo-charged ride into China’s Tomorrowland. There I was, literally being whisked from yesterday, into the present and then right into the Middle Kingdom’s future. My vehicle to the future and absolutely favorite attraction was the very high speed Tron motorcycle – hunched over the ride’s handlebars as I sped, twisted and accelerated from past to future at 80 miles per hour.

From the past – the sheer pictorial juxtaposition of Mickey Mouse and Chairman Mao, the iconic American entertainment mouse eternally smiling, the Chinese Chairman eternally dour.

The pageantry of that moment was pretty cool and symbolic too …complete with A-List personalities like George Lucas, and letters sent for the occasion from the two sitting presidents (of the US and the PRC). Of course, the official opening was a very flashy reprise of the high production value Olympic pageantry. All the language of the day was on display, especially the Disney leadership’s frequent reference to the Chinese dream. Then, whisked into Tomorrow Land, to ask “what does it all mean?”

Here is where the ironies of commerce, power and nationalism really came together.

Just a week before the grand opening I read two articles in the People’s Daily essentially denouncing Disney as an agent of American hegemony. The great irony was that the full throated protector of the fatherland calling for the Chinese to remain true to their traditions was not the top Communist Party ideologue, but literally the richest man in China, the owner of Dalian Wanda Group Wang Jianlin, who had himself just opened his own theme park, a direct competitor to Disney. “Chinese culture led in the world for 2,000 years, but for the past 300…we have less confidence in our own culture,”, he said. He also claimed Disney would fail because, “the frenzy of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck…has passed.” Bob Iger, the Disney CEO, said “Shanghai Disneyland is authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

So there it was for all to see — nationalism, politics and business acted out on the bright and shiny fields of 21st century entertainment. One wonders how those three elements of power will play out in the coming years? Does China morph more into a global media, communication and entertainment powerhouse at home, in the region, and globally? Likely that Mickey and Minnie will determinedly do their Disney thing to the continuing delight of the Chinese, who seem to want authentic global Disney, complete with Goofy and Pirates of the Caribbean, while dozens of domestic parks offer less expensive and their own more Chinese tchotchkes and traditional touchstones. For now, it appears that the Chinese are perfectly delighted to have the very best of the Magic Kingdom in the heart of their Middle Kingdom.

When we talked during those days, CEO Bob Iger seemed delighted he had successfully played the long term game, maybe drawing on the strategies the Chinese have been following for thousands of years (after all, he also bought out Lucas Film as a long term play. And the Chinese gained the largest private foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country at $5.5 billion, as well as a pretty good rep for hospitality to big companies. Still, I suspect Mickey Mouse is more pleased than Chairman Mao. But hey, what’s not to like?

Since the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism already has a pretty big footprint and class-A reputation in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and other cities, and are rapidly expanding our own activities in entertainment, media and communications, our students are well placed for Futureland whether in Shanghai or Hollywood. They also are particularly well prepared because of the training they are receiving in what we’re calling Third Space Thinking and the five key competencies that underpin it.

In particular, Cultural Competency, which was on center stage at the Shanghai Disneyland opening. Our students are learning to work inclusively and respectfully with others of various cultures and orientations and shun the traditional limitations of borders that hinder traditional problem-solving. All of these lesson our students take from USC Annenberg will definitely be their ticket to the future of both Kingdoms.

Still, the question remains whether Trumps’ pre-presidential tweets symbolize his characteristic bluster or a sharp turn in American policy toward the Middle Kingdom. Seems that if the Magic Kingdom could commit 17 years to getting what it wanted through subtlety and stealth, the American republic could use third space thinking to achieve the same in a much shorter time. Only time will tell.