Disney Needs to Worry About the Jimmy Kimmel Controversy in China

Photograph by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images

With big plans for China, the Walt Disney Co. can’t afford a long fight over the now-infamous segment on Disney-owned ABC last month in which a little blond-haired boy told Jimmy Kimmel that the U.S. should fix its financial problems by killing all the people in China. Gee, don’t kids say the darndest things? The comedian didn’t help matters by following up the tot’s comment by asking the other children on the panel, “Should we allow the Chinese to live?” Chinese-Americans are understandably upset and have demanded apologies from Kimmel and ABC.

Now the Chinese government is getting in on the umbrage action, with a spokesman yesterday calling on the network to “respond to the Chinese community’s demand in a sincere way,” the official Xinhua news agency reported. According to Xinhua, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang added that “spreading racism and hatred goes against the media’s social responsibility.”

In a worrisome sign for Disney, the call for an apology came after ABC had indeed apologized. “Please accept our heartfelt, sincere apology,” the network said in a Nov. 8 statement. Perhaps the Chinese Foreign Ministry doubts the sincerity of the apology, with the sort of mistakes-were-made passive construction your English teacher warned you never to use. “The simple fact is, the segment should never have been broadcast,” ABC said, adding: “steps have been made to try and prevent this kind of egregious mistake from occurring in the future.”

The Chinese media are certainly skeptical. “An apology letter purportedly written by Kimmel was posted on one of Xinhua’s official Sina Weibo accounts on Monday,” the Global Times reported. (Emphasis added.) “In the letter, written in Chinese, Kimmel said that he felt sorry and ‘it was not his intention to offend anyone.’ “

If anti-ABC protests in the U.S. turn into anti-Disney protests in China, the bad publicity could spoil the company’s plans to win over Chinese consumers in time for the opening of its newest theme park, now under construction in Shanghai. Scheduled to open in 2015, the resort will have two hotels, as well as Shanghai Disneyland. The park will “blend classic Disney storytelling and characters with all-new attractions and experiences tailored specifically for the people of China,” Disney promises on its website.

As part of the runup to the Shanghai park opening, Disney is also planning the world’s biggest Disney Store, a 53,000-square-foot complex in Pudong that will include a 10,800-square-foot store, plus an outdoor plaza. The company is targeting Chinese families through its Disney English-language centers, and it is supporting Chinese entrepreneurs through its venture capital arm, Steamboat Ventures. The VC fund has invested in more than a dozen Chinese startups and last month joined with four additional funds to put $50 million into Beijing-based mobile game developer Chukong Technologies.

Fortunately for Disney, the company has a valuable ally in China. State-owned Shanghai Shendi Group is Disney’s partner in the $4.4 billion Shanghai project. That should help Disney control the damage to its image among Chinese consumers.

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