Middle Kingdom Mouse Riles Disney

A Beijing amusement park with characters echoing those of the U.S. entertainment king causes furor ahead of critical U.S.-China trade talks

China's blasé attitude toward product piracy costs foreign brands billions of dollars and has drawn withering international criticism. Last month it even prompted the U.S. to file a complaint with World Trade Organization. Yet when a YouTube video clip taken in early May at a Beijing area amusement park and featuring actors that looked strikingly like Disney characters started bouncing around the Internet, even Beijing officialdom took notice.

This isn't the sort of publicity Beijing really desires just as a Chinese diplomatic trade mission led by Vice-Premier Wu Yi heads to Washington on May 23 and 24 to try to assuage U.S. anger over the mainland's large trade surplus, restrictive currency policy, and intellectual-property rip-offs. Even in a country where you can now buy pirated DVD versions of Spiderman 3 for less than a dollar, playing fast and loose with an iconic U.S. brand like Disney isn't the way to make friends and influence people in Washington.

The trouble started when a Japanese news crew visited Beijing's Shijingshan Amusement Park and shot footage of characters that were the spitting image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Snow White, Tigger, and other foreign copyrighted personages such as Japan's Hello Kitty and Doeramon, in early May.

Investigators Dispatched

The park also features a Cinderella Castle that seems inspired by Disneyland's faux fairytale castle. To judge for yourself, you can find the Japanese-language YouTube video clip entitled "Fake Disney Land in China" here. Until recently there was even a red banner with white lettering that said: "Disneyland is too far. Come to Shijingshan."

Disney officials aren't amused, and lawyers for the U.S. entertainment giant soon contacted officials with the bureau of copyright inside the Beijing city government, pointing out the park has no contractual rights to use Disney characters. The Beijing government dispatched a team of investigators to the site and says Shijingshan park officials have since "enacted emergency measures" to resolve the matter, according to a statement by the bureau's deputy director, Wang Yefei.

Even China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu weighed in on the Disney affair during a May 10 press briefing usually devoted to weightier international matters. "We have noticed the media report," she said, adding that while global media attention had "focused around the fake Disneyland in Beijing, there are signs that not only are foreign brands such as Disney being hurt by copyright infringement, but also Chinese brands."

"We Have Our Own Mascots"

In any case, the message has apparently been received by park officials. During a swing through the park on May 12, there were no Disney-like creatures anywhere to be seen, though attractions and rides with titles such as "Star Wars," "the Adventure of Cinderella" and "Crazy Mouse" are still up and running. And visitors can now watch characters based on the official mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing perform at the park.

Liu Jingwang, general manager of Beijing Shijingshan Amusement Park, said he didn't understand all the furor caused by the Japanese TV report and added that the amusement center hasn't done anything wrong. "We have our own mascots. We have our own corporate image. We don't need to imitate other people," he said.

Disney officials seem satisfied for now. "The protection of intellectual property and the guarantee of a quality Disney experience for consumers is vital to our business" noted Disney Asia spokeswoman Alannah Goss in an e-mailed statement, adding, "We appreciate the efforts of the Beijing Copyright Bureau in dealing with this situation."

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