Reading and listening to trip reviews about Shanghai Disney Resort, many reviewers comment on the number of hawkers and scalpers that seem to roam both inside and outside the park. Indeed, I have covered this issue a few times in several articles.
As you can see from the reviews on TripAdvisor, a few visitors wonder why Disney does not do more to stop or prevent these FastPass and ticket scalpers or merchandise hawkers from doing business outside and inside the park. Some of these comments suggest that Disney and its local joint venture conglomerate, Shanghai Shendi Group, are not doing anything, or doing enough, to stop these individuals. However, when discussing the matter of hawkers and scalpers at Shanghai Disney Resort we should first ask if Disney and Shanghai Shendi Group can do something to stop this behavior. As with so many things in China, it is complicated.
1. Lack of Proper Enforcement and Legal Deterrents
At Walt Disney World, when we would see a ticket scalper or an individual that was engaging in inappropriate behavior, we could have law enforcement escort them from Disney property, trespass them and/or potentially press charges and have them arrested. However, the law and policing does not work that way in China. As both Theme Park University and I have discussed, trespassing an individual is just not really a possibility in China (see trespassing laws in China). So when Disney and Shendi partner with local law enforcement in China to do a crackdown to remove hawkers and scalpers, it is mostly for the media and the public. The individuals are shown taken to a law enforcement facility where they have their picture taken and receive education about how their actions reflects negatively on China and goes against creating a “socialist harmonious society.” So after their processing and education, a day or two will go by and these individuals will return to the resort. No fine. No punishment. One day not making money. Just catch and release. Why don’t they receive any kind of major penalty?
2. Not a Major Concern for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Local Leaders
China is a one party dictatorship and as such the CCP’s number one concern is staying in power. They have been able to do this, according to scholars like Gordon Chang author of The Coming Collapse of China, by lifting over 500 million people out of poverty in the past thirty years. For many Chinese their lives have improved and appear on track to keep getting better. Therefore, the party has done a remarkable job of governing and raising both personal wealth and standards of living for the average Chinese person. So when it comes to issues such as ticket scalpers and hawkers at Shanghai Disney or other tourist sites, it is not a major concern. Particularly when issuing fines or other penalties might incite animosity towards local leadership and the party. And again, that is not how policing is usually done in China. In fact, most police in China try to resolve any situation they respond to on-site rather than take it to the courts.
The mayor of Shanghai and other leaders did visit the resort to discuss the problem. And while the mayor and his office agreed that scalping and hawkers were an issue and promised to provide support to resolve the situation, nothing really materialized. Again, there were occasional crackdowns for the cameras and the public to show that the leadership and police were doing something. But behind the scenes, Shanghai leadership and the CCP acknowledged that these people are just trying to make a living earning some money and if they can do that without threatening the party’s power, why bother them. As one party member told me, “There are too many to really do anything about. Just stop them for a day. You [Disney] make enough money anyhow.”
It is no secret that in China connections or 關係 [guanxi] is an important part of an individual’s life. During the darker times in China’s modern history, knowing the right individuals might help you land an “iron-rice-bowl” job 鐵飯碗 (a secure job) or help you receive the rations your family needed to survive another day. Part of the expectation in receiving such favors was that they would be repaid at a future date in some form. Such connections and expectations continue to this day. When I asked one of our police officers station at the park about these scalpers and hawkers he chuckled, “They [scalpers and hawkers] are ignored by some on purpose. Some of them make quite a bit of money. Maybe more than you and I combined on some days. They know who they need to hand 紅包 [hongbao] “red envelopes” to and have them look the other way.” Red envelopes, as the name implies, are red colored envelopes that are filled money. These envelopes are usually presented to individuals on special occasions: weddings, birthdays, holidays, bonuses from an employer. They have also taken on a euphemistic meaning, to present someone with a bribe. For a number of these scalpers and hawkers, they are presenting law enforcement or other individuals (including some Disney cast members and management) with red envelopes to have them look the other way. A reciprocal relationship between those who might be able to do something about the situation and those causing it.
One case I was involved in was regarding a van dropping off guests backstage. On a very regular basis, I would see a van pull-up backstage behind our office and drop off families on a semi-regular basis, several times a day. After checking with VIP tours and other departments to ensure this was not a sanctioned guest transport, I snapped photos of the van and the guests and sent them to security. A day after I sent the email, the van stopped. A few days later and I received an email from security saying that they had no record of any vehicles with that plate number entering the resort, despite the fact I had photographic evidence of the car backstage. Weeks later while walking behind Tomorrowland, I saw a van drop off guests backstage. I checked my phone’s photos and sure enough it was the same van. I again took some photos and sent an email. This time I never received a response, but the van still made regular drops according to one of my friends who worked in Tomorrowland attractions.
4. It is Part of the Culture
Scalpers and hawkers are not exclusive to Shanghai Disneyland. Almost any tourist location in China will have a mixture of both, with some beggars thrown in. In fact the only people who seemed to be expressly upset or comment on the hawkers and scalpers were foreign guests. When I spoke to local guests about the situation most of them were neutral. “It is part of China, right?” said one guest. “You just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone. If you don’t show an interest they’ll just walk away.” “They know who is interested in their services,” said another guest.
In other countries, we are not surprised to see ticket scalpers outside of sports games, Broadway shows and other live events, so for the Chinese guest, scalpers and hawkers are just part of the landscape when visiting a tourist site. This is not to say that everyone simply accepts this behavior. As one of my leads told me, “As a Shanghai citizen, it makes me sad. It reflects poorly on our city. But there isn’t much we can do. They are just trying to make a living, I guess… It can be a nuisance at times. But if no one was willing to buy, they wouldn’t be there.”
And that is key, if culturally it is accepted as part of the landscape, even if some people disagree with it, there is still a number of people who are going to partake in the services these hawkers and scalpers offer. And as long as there is money to be made and little to no strong legal deterrents to curb or discourage this behavior, it is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. So the question then is, what can Disney and other future theme park operators in China do about this phenomenon? Come back next time as we discuss what Disney has done, and can do, to influence and manage this behavior.