Disney's Chairman Bob Iger game for a new job: US ambassador to China

Mr. Iger served as Disney chief executive for 15 years until being named executive chairman earlier this year.

Walt Disney Co. executive chairman Robert Iger has told people close to the incoming Biden administration that he would be interested in serving as U.S. ambassador to China, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Iger, who served as Disney chief executive for 15 years until being named executive chairman earlier this year, would be an unorthodox choice for a posting that typically goes to governors and senators. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized Disney's business dealings in China or have questioned whether Mr. Biden would be sufficiently tough on Beijing, so his possible appointment may draw political backlash.

In recent weeks, high-dollar donors have begun to quietly discuss ambassadorships with the Biden transition team, though they have been told cabinet positions are the current focus, people familiar with the discussions said. Mr. Iger has been a supporter of Mr. Biden and has a long-running relationship with China's president Xi Jinping.

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Mr. Biden has announced plans to nominate one ambassador to date -- Linda Thomas Greenfield for ambassador to the United Nations. The most highly prized ambassadorships are expected to go to people "who have been with Joe forever," said a person familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Iger has signaled that he would be interested in serving a Biden administration in a number of capacities, according to a person close to him.

Whoever gets the ambassadorship to China would have to navigate one of the trickiest balancing acts between corporate and political America. The country's vast and growing market has proven too big for major companies to ignore, but has forced executives to make choices that Republicans and Democrats have considered kowtowing.

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Mr. Biden inherits frayed relations between the two countries. Trade tensions are likely to continue and questions around human-rights abuses will grow louder as the time nears for China to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Since news of a possible Iger appointment to China was first reported by The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, conservative news outlets have ridiculed the possible choice, saying it would be a "bow to Beijing" given Disney's history of placating officials to stay in business in the market.

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Mr. Iger's history in China dates back to the 1990s, when he was introduced to high-ranking officials by his then-boss, CEO Michael Eisner, on a trip during which the company apologized for releasing a movie sympathetic to the Dalai Lama, Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." Mr. Iger has since gotten to know Mr. Xi, at one point presenting him with a photo of Mr. Xi's father visiting Disneyland in 1980.

After being named CEO in 2005, Mr. Iger picked up a yearslong campaign at Disney to break into China, which has resulted in a Disney theme park in Shanghai and billions of dollars in box-office grosses flowing back to the company.

Another Hollywood executive and Democratic donor, Jeffrey Katzenberg, suggested several weeks ago to the Biden transition team that Mr. Iger would make a good ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Katzenberg, however, didn't speak with Mr. Iger about that suggestion before sharing it with the Biden team, the people said.

During the 2020 election cycle, Mr. Iger gave $500,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, according to Federal Election Commission records. He also donated a combined $85,100 to other efforts to elect Democrats in the Senate and the House.

For Mr. Iger, a possible job in the Biden administration would answer one question that has consumed Hollywood for years: what he plans to do next. Mr. Iger delayed his retirement from Disney before naming Bob Chapek to the CEO role in February. He became executive chairman with a contract that expires in December 2021.

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Mr. Iger has expressed political ambitions before and toyed with running for the Democratic primary in 2020.

Though it is considered the most successful of the Hollywood studios operating in China, Disney has navigated a number of political sensitivities to maintain good relations with officials.

When broadcasts of National Basketball Association games were banned after a Houston Rockets executive expressed support for protesters in Hong Kong, Disney's ESPN division was pulled into the controversy since it had partnered with a Chinese conglomerate to air the matchups. Mr. Iger demurred on the issue when asked about it in October 2019.

"To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake," Mr. Iger said.

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Earlier this year, Disney drew criticism from lawmakers after it was revealed that its live-action remake of "Mulan" had filmed in Xinjiang, a Western province where members of the Muslim Uighur minority have been held in detention facilities. Knowledge of the filming spread when local officials in Xinjiang were thanked in the film's closing credits.

Mr. Biden has said he knows Mr. Xi well himself, since while serving as vice president he was told by Barack Obama to acquaint himself with the man many assumed would one day run China.