Congress, Shareholders Put Disney on the Hot Seat over China
Disney CEO Bob Iger graciously took time out of his public feud with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) to talk about a topic House Republicans are done tiptoeing around: China. On Wednesday, a group led by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) made the long trek to Los Angeles to sit down with Iger, who’s enraged more than a few Republicans over the years. But for all of their political disagreements, Gallagher is hoping this rare social call will help them get to the bottom of a very important question — just how much influence does the communist regime have on Hollywood?
The discussion, which was intentionally closed to the media, was Gallagher’s idea. Before he was chair of the House Select Committee on China, the Wisconsin congressman was adamant that America’s most influential CEOs needed to be more candid about their relationship with China. Now, thanks to the select committee, he’s moving forward with a series of private dialogues.
“I think we can have a productive conversation with Disney, with the NBA, with Apple,” he told PBS. “I genuinely want to understand how they think about doing business in China. We have to have that conversation, difficult though it may be at times.”
As Gallagher has said, these are sensitive issues, but it’s critically important that these brands aren’t giving the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a foothold in content development or messaging. “We just want to make sure that American companies are acting like Americans and embracing American values like — like free speech and plurality and things like that. So that’s the concern.”
For years, Disney has seemed willing to do anything to protect its interests in China, even if it means condoning a regime of unspeakable horrors. They’ve given the infamous one-child tyrants an increasingly powerful seat at America’s entertainment table, despite the genocide CCP leaders are carrying out against millions of religious minorities. It’s maddening when you consider the shameless double standard. Iger has no qualms blasting the supposed “human rights” violations in red states — only to turn around and partner with countries like China, who are violently targeting, torturing, and imprisoning their own people.
As DeSantis pointed out in the uproar over the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, “You have companies, like at Disney, that are going to… criticize parents’ rights, they’re going to criticize the fact that we don’t want transgenderism in kindergarten, in first-grade classrooms.” Fine, DeSantis said. “If that’s the hill they’re going to die on, then how do they possibly explain lining their pockets with their relationship from the Communist Party of China? Because that’s what they do, and they make a fortune, and they don’t say a word about the really brutal practices that you see over there at the hands of the CCP.”
And yet, China’s role in Hollywood only seems to grow. The Washington Times posted a laundry list of projects that took a messaging turn after Xi’s censors objected. The uproar most people remember happened in 2019 when the producers of “Top Gun: Maverick” seemed to cave to communist pressure and stripped Maverick’s flight jacket of the Taiwanese flag (a decision later reversed, thanks to audience outrage). But movies from “World War Z” to “The Karate Kid” have all been altered as the price of admission to a lucrative Chinese market. A price too many studio executives have been willing to pay, House Republicans argue.
Interestingly enough, China’s power over Hollywood’s messaging is so worrisome that Congress actually included a little known provision in its latest Defense authorization bill forbidding the Pentagon from “cooperating with any film project that seeks ‘pre-approval of the content’ from the Chinese government or ‘modifies or deletes in any way the content of the project as a result from any direction’” from the CCP. Why? Because, as Lt. General (Ret.) William Boykin told The Washington Stand, it’s acquiescing U.S. authority.
“The fact that America is allowing the Chinese to have that kind of influence on one of our platforms is a very dangerous thing,” he insisted. “What are they going to do next? Action like this means that they are altering American society. What’s really disturbing is the fact that at least some elements of our nation are enabling them and allowing them to influence the decisions that should be made by Americans, free of interference or consideration of the Chinese.”
In other words, Iger and his counterparts shouldn’t be pacifying China just to tap into a bigger audience. That’s the exact opposite of what Congress was trying to accomplish when the U.S. gave China permanent most favored nation status. The whole idea was that we were going to change the CCP’s oppressive tendencies by opening the door to trade. We were going to win them over to our ideas, our culture, our freedoms. The United States was supposed to be exporting values, not swallowing them. Now, 23 years later, Fortune 500 companies are racing to shed American ideals — all to make a buck.
Instead of forcing China to deal with their human rights abuses, we’re filming movies where they take place. That, Strive Asset Management’sJustin Danhof argues, ought to outrage every American. During Monday’s shareholder meeting at Disney, the company’s cozy relationship with the CCP was front and center, thanks to a resolution offered by conservatives to demand transparency about Iger’s dealings with Xi’s country.
“There is perhaps no American company that has such an allegiance to the CCP,” Danhof said of Disney. “So much so that when they filmed ‘Mulan’ they actually thanked the Chinese Communist Party in the credits. Where did they film Mulan? In the Xinjiang province. What happens there? Well, the Chinese Communist Party enslaves a minority Muslim population called the Uyghurs. ... And Disney thanked them for the pleasure of filming in this location.”
That’s why conservative shareholders this week demanded an audit of the company’s business dealings in China. It’s time for Disney to “detach” itself from the moral stain of China’s human rights abuses and stop colluding with America’s enemy. And yet, Danhof pointed out, “Disney has contractual relationships with the CCP,” he went on, “where in fact they actually own more of Disney Shanghai than Disney owns. … So of course, you would think Disney explains this to their investors in things like their 10-K filings. You’d be wrong. Disney doesn’t. They barely mention China at all when it comes to material risks to investors.”
There is, and continues to be, zero accountability for Disney’s partnership with a government that enslaves, brutalizes, and forcibly aborts its own people. These are the villains who unleashed COVID on the world, who built a network of Uyghur torture chambers, who relentlessly persecute their own religious citizens, who forcibly harvest the organs of prisoners of conscience, who are stealing our technology and invading our universities. It’s no wonder Gallagher and his team of Republicans are troubled enough to make the flight.
“We want to make sure that the power of the Chinese economy is not seducing certain companies into betraying American values,” Gallagher said. Based on Disney’s recent history, that betrayal has already happened. It’s what Republicans do about it that matters.
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.