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The Wrong Bear For Chinese Cinema

actor in Winnie the Pooh costume in a Hong Kong Disneyland parade
Pooh on parade at Hong Kong Disneyland. Photo by Loren Javier.

Who wouldn’t love a “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff?” Chinese authorities, apparently, who have denied a release in their country to Disney’s new film “Christopher Robin.”

Neither Disney nor Beijing has commented about the reason for the decision, though there is an ample supply of speculation from media outlets and bystanders alike. As an unnamed source observed to Variety, however, it is hard be sure why Winnie the Pooh has been denied a visa to appear on Chinese screens.

Chinese authorities have a track record of blocking Pooh, because the Chinese media and some dissenters have made unflattering comparisons between the bear and China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Beijing previously blocked pictures of the character on social media, especially in the wake of controversial policy decisions or events such as the death of dissident Liu Xiaobo. After “Last Week Tonight” featured an unflattering story about Xi’s administration, including mention of the Pooh connection, Chinese authorities blocked the program’s home channel, HBO. The Hollywood Reporter, which first broke the story that “Christopher Robin” would not play in China, spoke to an unnamed source who thought that the decision likely is tied to Beijing’s overall crackdown on all things Pooh.

Industry insiders also suggest a different explanation: “Christopher Robin” may simply be the victim of China’s foreign film quota. The country only screens a set number of non-Chinese films per year, and these movies are often flashier offerings like “Ant-Man and The Wasp” (also a Disney project by way of Marvel Studios) or the latest entry in the “Mission Impossible” franchise. Disney’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle In Time,” a similarly family-oriented fantasy, did not get a Chinese release earlier this year either.

So maybe “Christopher Robin” got the red light because Xi’s critics sometimes compare him to Pooh. Or maybe it’s because China has a quota of 34 American releases per year and the Hundred-Acre Wood is short on explosions. But these are not the only possibilities.

For instance, the decision could represent pure protectionism. China garners a lot of international goodwill by lending its pandas to zoos and parks worldwide. It may want to protect its cute bear franchise from Anglo-American competition.

Or perhaps Pooh got caught up in the current round of trade tensions between Washington and Beijing. The Chinese may be trying to decide how much of a tariff to impose on Pooh’s honey pots. They could be struggling with the associated technical questions: Would the tariff apply just to the honey, or to the value of the pots themselves? Would the bees figure into it?

Maybe Pooh looks too much like a different world leader – say, Kim Jong Un. The Chinese may not want to be reminded of their lousy taste in short, rotund friends.

Pooh is also a big attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland. The Chinese authorities might be trying to prevent the bear from becoming a beacon of liberties denied to other Chinese citizens, or a reminder of how Beijing is trying to methodically undermine the freedoms it promised to maintain in Hong Kong when it reverted from British control two decades ago. Maybe Pooh is just too British, and thus too reminiscent of the nation’s past treatment at the hands of colonial powers.

It’s even possible they suspect Pooh is a Taiwanese secret agent, trying to infect loyal Chinese citizens with sympathies toward a friendly bear whose likeness is sometimes manufactured in the still-autonomous province.

Has anyone checked Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book for references to the Hundred-Acre Wood?

The bottom line is nobody really knows why the Chinese authorities banned Pooh from their nation’s screens, because nobody knows why the Chinese authorities do anything. They perceive no obligation to explain themselves even to their own countrymen, let alone to those of us outside their borders. And what we don’t know actually tells us pretty much everything we need to know about this subject.

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