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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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May 25, 2005

Disney's Hong Kong Problem

Here’s a question for the aficionados of corporate social responsibility. Should Walt Disney allow the serving of shark’s fin soup at the new Disneyland in Hong Kong? According to a story in the Hongkong Standard, a professor at Hong Kong University has protested this because many sharks are endangered and because the harvesting is inhumane. Of course, this professor is a gweilo—a foreigner.

The Disney company says it has to conform to local customs, and by local custom, if you’re restaurant is going to do a business in fancy banquets, it has to serve that soup. I lived in Hong Kong 15 years ago, and that appeared to be the case then. (I had my share of shark's fin soup, but not the top-of-the line stuff.)

The environmentalists will say that shark’s fin soup is ‘unsustainable,’ and maybe it is. If it is, then it will eventually go away. But how much is it Disney’s responsibility to make that happen? Disney is a foreigner in Hong Kong. It is setting up shop in a former European colony, where the non-European people are sensitive about foreigners getting on a soap box and telling them what to do. Whether the people of Hong Kong are ready to swear off shark’s fin soup I do not know, but a campaign against it would have more credibility if a Chinese were behind it.

Then again, from an environmental point of view, it is much easier to put the screws on Disney than some Hong Kong company. I am reminded of another case, about toothpaste. It was about race relations, not environment, but otherwise similar.

For years a Hong Kong company made a toothpaste called Darkie, sold under the logo of a grinning black man in a top hat. When I moved to Hong Kong in 1989, they still sold that brand. I was amazed by it. Well, soon after I got there, the Hong Kong company was bought out by Colgate, and there was pressure to change the name and logo—not pressure in Hong Kong, but in the United States. And Colgate changed it. The new logo looked more like a white guy, and the name was “Darlie.” However, the name in Chinese--spelled in four characters--is still “Black Man Tooth Paste.”

You can see the before-and-after photos here.

The internationalization of sensitivities is one of the consequences of the internationalization of business. And whether Disney does or does not decide to serve shark’s fin, it is companies like Disney that will take it off the menu first.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at May 25, 2005 04:17 PM



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