Mickey Mouse at the Gates

courtesy wikimedia commons

I have always been confused about the word globalization. As far as I can tell, it has something to do with the world getting smaller, closing the technology gap, and being able to enjoy a Starbucks soy latte in Mozambique; now, it apparently also has something to do with Disney World in China.

Experts in development and modernization theory will tell you that globalization is good for two things: 1) foreign direct investment (FDI) and 2) liberalization. FDI brings in money for development, and the target country gets a technology boost and a transfer of industrial know-how. Liberalization, on the other hand, helps increase democracy and decrease corruption. Combined, these two things make a compelling argument for why globalization is beneficial for developing countries.

Disney recently got approval to build a theme park in Shanghai, a foreign investment of over $3.5 billion dollars — one of the largest that China has ever seen. This approval came after almost two decades of courtship between China and Disney; apparently, China is finally willing to let its anti-Western guard down long enough to open its doors to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It looks like Disney, riding on the waves of globalization, is bringing joy and modernization to the world, one developing country at a time.

Or so you might think.

The truth is that China does not lack in FDI. The Wall Street Journal reports that China has seen a 19% increase in FDI. From January to September of this year, prior to Disney’s announcement, China totaled $63.8 billion dollars in FDI, compared to $10.5 billion in its more populous, democratic twin India. For China, technology and knowledge transfers from FDI are almost irrelevant; just look at how quickly China was able to reproduce the iPhone after its initial release.

And if Disney thinks it is going to liberalize China by bringing over life-sized Mickey Mouses, then it should think again. China has given no signal that it will make any concessions in how it runs its government after this deal. On the contrary, it has reaffirmed its limit on foreign media by removing from the package the potential for Disney TV channels in China. Quite frankly, Disney knows that it is not making big splashes in China’s political landscape; it’s not as if China was censoring Disney films in the first place.

If Disney were looking for any type of liberalization, it would probably be through the consumer’s pocketbooks, as if the masses of Disney paraphernalia — ranging from plush dolls to pencil cases — sold across China aren’t enough. The end goal of this deal between China and Disney does not have development or modernization in mind, but profit, undoubtedly for both sides.

My objection here is similar to those people who find Starbucks next to the forbidden palace distasteful. Disney World has its place in the Western world; but to see it in Dubai or Hong Kong is to confuse homogenization for globalization. Globalization has its perks, but its purpose is not to make it possible for me to get a nonfat triple latte and a Big Mac while posing with Princess Jasmine in Disney World Shanghai. On the other hand, homogenization does seek to blend cultural uniqueness with internationally recognized products for a profit-driven goal. If companies do have development in mind for these countries, then it should aim for the former, not the latter.

“Disneyfication” comes at a cost. Chinese people are now going to save for a vacation at Disneyworld instead of exploring the cultural richness of their own country, like the bingmayong or the Great Wall. At the same time, foreign companies who cannot possibly understand their target country’s culture with the same depth as natives will attempt to sell and market culture in conjunction with their products — for example, Disney rides that try to incorporate Chinese history. This cheapens culture, the antithesis of globalization’s goal.

I am not denying Chinese children their share of Minnie, Pluto or Goofy; rather, I advocate discretion before we commit to building a Disneyworld in every corner of the world.

Marion Liu ’11 (mliu@fas) does like her nonfat triple lattes.