Right now, amid a storm of protest movements in Hong Kong calling to liberate the area from its status as a special administrative region of China, scrutiny of Western companies seen as implicitly supporting the actions of the Chinese government is higher than ever. So, of course, the House of Mouse picked right now to announce a plan to try and make Star Wars more popular in China.
In the run-up to The Rise of Skywalker—which currently doesn’t have a Chinese release date—Disney is trying alternate methods to establish a homegrown audience for Star Wars in China. Deadline reports that the latest initiative is a collaboration with Tencent’s China Literature, the largest digital publisher in China, to both publish 40 Star Wars novels in Chinese language formats for the first time, and also create original fiction in the Star Wars universe specifically for the Chinese market.
The original fiction, first revealed by the official Star Wars account on Chinese social media platform Weibo, will be penned by a young author known under the psuedonym “His Majesty,” and will distribute exclusively on China Literature’s digital storefronts. It’s a smart move—instead of asking Chinese audiences to invest in stories aimed at Western audiences first and foremost, it’s creating a small corner of the Star Wars universe aimed specifically at them.
The galaxy far, far away has had a peculiar history in China. It was never officially released in the country, coming out of the throes of the Cultural Revolution as the Western world found itself amid Star Wars mania in 1977. Foreign movies, which even today still face rigorous rules before being screened alongside homegrown cinema, just simply weren’t being legally released. A New Hope was only first legally shown in the country in 2015, and without the nostalgia or pop-cultural influence that Star Wars has built over the last four decades elsewhere, it’s meant any attempts to bring the newer films to the nation have been met with mixed results.
The Force Awakens did reasonably well, bringing in $124 million—although it faced extremely stiff competition from, of all things, a Sherlock Christmas special. However both Rogue One and The Last Jedi bombed, pulling in just $70 and $43 million, respectively—the latter so bad that Solo: A Star Wars Story changed its name to remove mentions of Star Wars, in the hopes of pulling in audiences without relying on what was now apparently clear: the distinct lack of cultural cache the Skywalker saga has in the country. It didn’t help, with Solo pulling in just $16.5 million.
What doesn’t appear to be a smart move in this new publishing strategy is announcing it with Tencent right now. In the last week, video game developer Blizzard—the studio behind World of Warcraft and Overwatch among many other titles, and whose parent company, Activision-Blizzard, Tencent has a roughly 5 percent stake in—banned and fined competitive Hearthstone (a digital card game set in the Warcraft universe) player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for using an official post-game broadcast to show support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, donning a white mask like those worn by protesters on the island and shouting “Liberate Hong Kong. The revolution of our age!”
Although Blizzard ultimately capitulated and reduced Ng Wai’s suspension from competitive Hearthstone and restored his fined prize money, the suspension sparked furor on social media in both Asia and the West, with launch celebrations for Blizzard releases scrapped and major protests planned for the studio’s annual fan convention, Blizzcon, early next month—and even a minor diplomatic incident, as U.S. Senator Ron Wyden decried the studio for seemingly bowing down to pressure from the Chinese government.
The Central Government has consistently threatened increasingly violent crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong over the past few months, who are fighting against potential legislation that could allow the Chinese government to extradite people from Hong Kong—which has been fighting to become a democratic bastion in the region for years—and the incident with Blizzard has seen actions by Western companies with Chinese interests commenting on the Hong Kong protest movements come under noticeable scrutiny.
Now, it’s Disney’s turn to face that same scrutiny too.
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