China's military has a new enemy: Disney's 'Zootopia'

China’s Communist Party has long preached resistance to Western values, such as democracy and freedom of speech.

Now, according to a Chinese military newspaper, these values are infiltrating China via an unlikely Trojan horse: the Disney animated movie “Zootopia.”

The People’s Liberation Army Daily recently branded the cartoon — a computer-animated buddy-cop film set in a city populated by animals — an instrument of American propaganda. The film has earned more than $230 million in China, ranking it among Disney’s top-grossing films in the world’s second-largest market.

“Hollywood has long been an effective propaganda machine — it has a deep understanding of the U.S.’s [political] strategies” said the commentary, written by Wang Chuanbao, a professor at the military-backed Nanjing Institute of Politics. “Many Hollywood blockbusters will carefully select a topic or theme, and spare no efforts to promote America’s values and its global strategy.”

The commentary claimed that the filmmakers intended to telegraph subtle messages about the “American Dream” via the role reversal of its animal characters — the film is about a rabbit and a fox attempting to track down predators who have gone missing. The culprit is a diminutive sheep.

“If one thinks carefully about it, if a rabbit can strike back, are there any ‘American Dreams’ ordinary people cannot realize?” it said. “In cruel reality, it is always wolves that eat lambs, not lambs that eat wolves.... Hollywood easily reversed a thing so simple that even kids know it, and thus attracted a huge audience.”

The commentary was headlined, “How can a sheep be turned into a ‘crazy’ scapegoat?”

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping ideological campaign to restore legitimacy to the Communist Party, partially by keeping Western influence at bay.

In January 2015, education officials banned textbooks deemed to endorse Western values in university classrooms. Last month, China’s Civil Affairs Ministry banned foreign names for places such as “roads, bridges, buildings, and residential compounds,” explaining that they are “not a true reflection of the history and culture of this vast nation,” according to the official New China News Agency.

In March of last year, the Global Times, a nationalistic state-run tabloid, blamed Western values for sparking the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the "Arab spring,” and called them a “ticket to hell” that “can only bring disaster to China.”

The People’s Liberation Army Daily commentary also called American video games such as "Call of Duty 8” and “Battlefield 4” a propaganda vehicle, as they make the U.S. military appear sleek and sophisticated, while “countries America would like to contain” — Cuba, Russia, China — are portrayed as backward and crude.

“Comparing to [other] cartoons and video games, ‘Zootopia’ is more subtle,” it said. “It has no obvious hostile propaganda, no deliberate distortions, which makes it easier to lose one’s vigilance,” the commentary said. 

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Chinese Internet users widely lambasted the commentary; many noted that until China’s film industry truly stacks up to Hollywood, their viewing habits won’t change.

“What else is there for us to watch if we are not allowed to watch ‘Zootopia’ — your brain-damaged Chinese cartoons?” wrote one user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

“Because the box office is high and everyone likes it, they are jealous,” said another. “Why can’t you reflect on what you can do [yourselves]? Why do we all like foreign programs?”

Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news from Asia

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