Why China's 2 Million Man Army Feels Threatened by a Cartoon Sheep

As I noted in an article earlier this week, China’s PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), recently exhorted readers to be aware of propaganda-driven “bias and distortions” in Hollywood movies, “even when watching animated films geared for children like the box-office hit Zootopia.”

The article’s author, Wang Chuanbao, expressed his strong objection to what he called Zootopia’s immoral “distortion of reality” because its plot twists the roles of predator and prey. Wang complained, “In a world of cruel reality, it is always a wolf that eats a sheep instead of the other way around. Such a fundamental concept that even a child could understand was turned around by Hollywood.”

What the filmmakers at Disney surely thought was a laudable message of tolerance for the differences amongst individuals and social groups, Mr. Wang perceived instead as a dangerous propaganda missive intended to confuse Chinese viewers about who should really be in charge. Because media in China is tightly controlled, and because every story must survive a gauntlet of editorial scrutiny before it can be published, we can be certain that the PLA Daily, and hence the PLA itself, must have felt sufficiently threatened by Zootopia‘s perceived political agenda that it has tened to issue a fierce public rebuttal.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Wang’s article as misguided, and perhaps even a bit silly, but I think it would be much more interesting and instructive to try and understand his point of view. Why would a representative of the world’s largest army feel compelled to vilify a seemingly innocuous family film, and to condemn it as dangerous propaganda designed to “promote US values and global strategy” at the expense of China’s security?

To understand such thinking, it helps to know the context in which the PLA Daily operates. As a single-party, unelected, authoritarian government, China’s ruling elite views media as a battleground for the minds of the people, and a potential breeding ground for dissent. Control over the content and ideas that reach its population is a key pillar of the Chinese Communist Party’s political power. “Public morals” are a genuine concern, but even more than that, media control is designed to protect the status quo of authoritarian rule. Any ideas and values that aren’t handed down by the Communist Party to the people are potential threats to the legitimacy of government power.

Hollywood has long been a particularly troubling source of angst for the PRC’s military and political regimes. Speaking to his countrymen back in 2002, a few months after China’s entry into the WTO, then prime minister Zhu Rongji warned that “Western hostile forces are continuing to promote their strategy of Westernizing and breaking up our country,” and he accused these people of conducting “infiltration and sabotage.” Zhu didn’t specifically mention Hollywood in his speech but he was clearly mindful of it, and the western ideals and cultural values expressed in Hollywood’s films were and continue to be viewed with extreme suspicion by China’s leaders.

So even though China allows its citizens access to a handful of Hollywood movies and TV shows each year under the watchful eye of its State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, attacks on these American cultural products are always welcomed, if not explicitly encouraged. Mr. Wang spotted and reported what he felt was a dangerous antisocial message in a children’s cartoon. The idea that there could be a social order superior to, or even just very different from, the existing one, is an idea that China’s rulers feel compelled to suppress at every turn.

Fortunately for Disney, the studio that created and distributes Zootopia, government officials in places other than the PLA allowed the film enough latitude that it has been able to amass a whopping $238 million in box office revenue in China, with several more days still to go in its record-breaking run. But the PLA Daily article should serve as a stark reminder to Hollywood that with every movie it makes, with every step it takes, there are disapproving eyes in high places in China that are watching.

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