The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Disney’s Bob Iger shouldn’t be ambassador to China. No Hollywood executive should be.

Bob Iger in New York in 2019. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

It’s no surprise that Walt Disney Company Executive Chairman Bob Iger’s name has come up in conjunction with plum ambassadorial gigs in President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. He floated himself as a potential 2020 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and he’s a longtime Democratic donor, a role that often translates to a fancy diplomatic posting. But though Iger has experience in China, one of the countries where he reportedly is most interested in serving, it’s experience of the wrong kind.

The Biden administration shouldn’t put Iger — or any other entertainment industry bigwig, for that matter — in charge of diplomatic relations with China. Our media moguls have spent years accommodating Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. Tapping one of them for this critical post would send the disastrous message that the U.S. government intends to do the same.

Iger undoubtedly knows the shady world of Chinese politics, having overseen the creation, building and opening of Walt Disney’s theme park in Shanghai. He writes fondly of the process in his memoir-cum-leadership book, “The Ride of a Lifetime.” From the “first location-scouting trip to China in 1998” to the ribbon-cutting ceremony with communist officials Wang Yang and Han Zheng, Iger was involved throughout. What he learned from the experience should give pause to those who believe he would serve America’s interests well in China.

“The creation of the park was an education in geopolitics, and a constant balancing act between the possibilities of global expansion and the perils of cultural imperialism,” he wrote. “The overwhelming challenge, which I repeated to our team so often it became a mantra for everyone working on the project, was to create an experience that was ‘authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.’”

Disney Shanghai wasn’t Iger’s only effort to placate the Chinese government, which tightly controls which American cultural products reach Chinese audiences.

Under his watch, the company’s Marvel division recast a Tibetan character from the Doctor Strange movies as a Celtic woman. While the official Disney line was that the original character was stereotypical, writer C. Robert Cargill acknowledged that “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [a character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people … and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ ”

More recently, Disney filmed its live-action remake of “Mulan” in China’s Xinjiang province, where the country has interned 1 million members of the Uighur community — and thanked a Chinese security agency based there in the film’s credits.

Iger’s attempt to shy away from “cultural imperialism” — what someone less in thrall of Chinese yuan might describe as “soft power,” or the ability to show an oppressed people a better, freer way of living — is understandable if all that matters to him is the bottom line. As Iger put it when he refused to comment on China’s crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, commenting on Chinese politics is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for the company.

But what about for the United States?

As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg put it last year after NBA leaders who had been outspoken about civil rights abuses in America went shamefully silent when China’s abuses of its ethnic Uighur minority and democratic protesters in Hong Kong came to light: “Sports leagues, movie studios and streaming networks will have to decide which is more important to them: the perception that they export something more consequential than mere entertainment, or access to markets governed by regimes with little or no interest in values such as free speech.”

And look, that’s fair if you’re nothing more than a C-suite executive trying to generate a profit for your company. Cowardice is profitable: There’s no money to be made in standing up for things like freedom of religion or expression.

But the ambassador to China needs to be someone who will balance what China desires to gain from the United States with the values that the United States should project to the world. This is not to say, necessarily, that the ambassador should be marching on the streets of Hong Kong in favor of freedom for that beleaguered city — though this old, unreformed neocon would love to see it. Diplomacy is a form of soft power, but a tricky one.

The least Biden could do is refrain from installing as our representative to China a man who has made his millions bowing and scraping to Xi at the behest of shareholders looking to squeeze every last yuan out of Chinese movie screens. The United States deserves to be represented on the world stage by someone who puts our national values ahead of personal profits.

Read more:

Ziba Murat: My mother may be a victim of China’s concentration camps. Disney’s ‘Mulan’ is a whitewash.

Max Boot: Trump’s China policy was a fiasco — not a triumph

Josh Rogin: China’s military expansion will test the Biden administration

Natan Sharansky: Why Jimmy Lai and Hong Kong’s democracy advocates need Biden’s public support right now