Mice get into everything. Just look at the best-known member of the species, Mickey. Since World War II he’s infiltrated every Bedouin tent and Russian dacha with a TV antenna. It truly is a small world after all, or so the Walt Disney Company used to think. Then Disney decided to open a theme park in Hong Kong. After determining that roughly 30 percent of their draw would need to come from mainland China, Disney sent emissaries into the hinterlands to gauge brand awareness. The Chinese, they discovered, barely knew who Mickey was, much less Donald, Goofy, and the rest of the gang. This was a problem for Disney, whose parks in Japan and Europe relied on existing interest in Disney’s characters. Luckily for Disney, it was also a problem for the Chinese government, which had invested $2.8 billion in exchange for a 57 percent stake in the Hong Kong theme park.
Enter the Chinese Communist Youth League, the venerable (it was founded in 1922, nearly three decades before Mao came to power) and massive (68 million Chinese between the ages of 14 and 28 call themselves members) organization that grooms China’s future party functionaries. With the tacit approval of Chinese President Hu Jintao, Disney linked up with the league to prepare China’s young people for the park’s September 2005 opening. Disney has sent video and music materials to the league’s thousands of “youth palaces,” and held “storytelling sessions” in a “grassroots brand-building program” meant to introduce Chinese youth to everything Disney. In the Guangzhou province, kids have been learning to draw their own Mickey cartoons.
“Education in China is changing,” says the vice president of the new park’s public affairs, “to encourage greater imagination and creativity. And that’s what our business is about.”