As Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government looks to tame China’s celebrities, the popularity of a new Universal Studios theme park in Beijing shows Hollywood’s enduring soft power among the nation’s 1.4 billion people.
Tickets for yesterday’s grand opening, priced at 638 yuan (US$98.67), sold out within 30 minutes of going online last week — as did rooms costing as much as 20,000 yuan at the resort’s two hotels, state-run media reported.
Fliggy (飛豬), an online travel site operated by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (阿里巴巴), last week apologized for overselling the 500 yuan Universal Express Pass that lets visitor skip lines.
Yesterday morning, the park became the most-searched topic on the Sina Weibo microblogging site, as hundreds of visitors queued for entrance in the rain while those inside posted videos of their experiences.
A grand opening ceremony was attended by top officials, including Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary of Beijing Cai Qi (蔡奇), state-backed news Web site The Paper reported.
The surging demand underscores the challenge Xi faces in dampening the appetite for celebrities among the general public, as the CCP looks to curtail foreign influences and promote the concept of “common prosperity.”
A commentary published widely in state-run media last month warned against “fan culture” and “worshiping Western culture.”
Earlier this month, the National Radio and Television Administration — China’s broadcast regulator — ordered television companies and Internet platforms to ban film stars with “incorrect politics,” cap salaries and do away with idol worship.
One of China’s most popular film stars, Zhao Wei (趙薇), was blacklisted from China’s Internet, while another actress was last month ordered to pay 299 million yuan in overdue taxes, late fees and fines.
The popularity of the Universal Studios theme park shows resistance to the CCP’s tightening of cultural standards after decades of allowing Western influences, said to Adam Ni (倪淩超), co-editor of China Neican, a newsletter on Chinese public policy issues.
“As powerful as the party is, it will have to contend with countless everyday decisions by the Chinese, which would together make up the moral fabric of the People’s Republic,” he said.
In the lead-up to the park’s public opening, dozens of Chinese celebrities — including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) and supermodel Liu Wen (劉雯) — visited attractions related to Jurassic Park, Transformers and Harry Potter.
Photographs of other guests dressed in Hogwarts cloaks, and posing with Minions and Transformers characters, became trending topics on Sina Weibo.
“Universal Beijing Resort is popular with the Chinese because there is part of the global culture that the Chinese thirst for,” Ni said. “Beijing is trying to reinforce this dichotomy between ‘Chinese’ and ‘foreign,’ but there is still much admiration and curiosity for foreign cultures in China. So the public attitude toward Western culture is two-faced.”
The project, which is expected to attract 30 million visitors a year, is a joint venture between state-owned Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment Co (北京首寰文化旅遊投資) and Comcast NBCUniversal. It has been in the works since 2001.
New Chinese ambassador to the US Qin Gang (秦剛) last week compared one of the attraction’s roller coasters to bumpy diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing.
“After all tumbling and shakes, the roller coaster came to a soft landing in the end,” Qin, who visited the park before moving to the US in July, wrote on Twitter.
That positive spin was shared by the Global Times, which last week said the popularity displayed China’s “cultural confidence.”
However, there were other signs the attraction would face challenges from the government.
Cai on Thursday urged the US side to add more “Chinese elements” to the park in a video call with Comcast Corp chief executive officer Brian Roberts, the Beijing Daily reported.
Universal Beijing Resort did not respond to a question on how it would deal with China’s requests.
Harrison Wang, a 39-year-old Beijing resident who works in the film industry, heaped praise on the theme park after he attended the soft launch.
“People are here for the famed scenes and characters of these well-liked movies, as well as the world-class entertaining experience,” Wang said. “As the country’s borders are closed now, it offers a taste of the authentic Western culture.”
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