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Mickey Mao begins the long march

Hong Kong, Dec. 12: Walt Disney has teamed up with an unlikely but ruthless partner to introduce China to the pleasures of Mickey Mouse: the country's Communist Youth League, founded and inspired by Chairman Mao.

The collaboration, which Western diplomats have privately dubbed 'Mickey Mao', is aimed at harnessing the power of the 70-million strong Communist movement to promote Disney characters to Chinese children.

Instead of indoctrinating young people in the communist ideology of Mao Tse-Tung and the supremacy of the party, the league is beginning to inculcate a new generation in the delights of Donald Duck and the Lion King.

The benefit to Disney, one of the best-known faces of capitalism, is clear enough: it wants children in one of the world's fastest-growing markets to become familiar with its products before the planned opening of the Magic Kingdom theme park in Hong Kong in 2006.

Access to the Communist Party organisation has been granted because the project has received funding from the Beijing-backed Hong Kong administration which is investing $2.8 billion in return for a 57 per cent stake and a similar share of its profits ' plus a handshake from Mickey Mouse for Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, when the deal was finalised last month.

It is the first time that a Disney theme park has received direct government funding and Chinese officials are expecting fast returns on their investment ' revenues are projected to reach up to $19 billion over the next 40 years. The authorities anticipate up to 5.6 million visitors to the Magic Kingdom each year. To hit that target they must attract almost 2 million people from mainland China.

Disney's brand-building will not be entirely straightforward: most Chinese know little of traditional Western stories or their meanings, and have never heard of Sleeping Beauty or Winnie the Pooh.

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