When it comes to Orlando, millions of Chinese think of two things — Disney and Shaquille O’Neal. That may change, thanks to one of those things speaking from the heart and not the wallet.

The flashpoint was Hong Kong, of course. When the topic came up last week, O’Neal said Houston General Manager Daryl Morey was right when he tweeted “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”

When Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked to weigh in, a communist frog apparently jumped down his throat. “We’ve learned how complicated this is,” Iger said. “The biggest thing we’ve learned is caution is imperative.”

That no doubt pleased president Xi Jinping and the ruling party members in Beijing. After Morey’s tweet set off an international firestorm last month, they ordered Houston Rockets merchandise removed from stores in China.

Now they could make all visible traces of O’Neal disappear. He doesn’t have nearly as much invested in China as Disney, but it’s noteworthy to hear a basketball icon risk the wrath of the People’s Republic.

Most of them have lost their voices about Hong Kong. Well, LeBron James did reportedly speak up and ask NBA commissioner Adam Silver why Morey wasn’t punished for endangering the NBA’s multibillion-dollar business in China.

James and the NBA, ever willing to critique America’s social failings, were ripped for their hypocrisy. Disney has largely managed to fly under that radar, but Iger’s “caution is imperative” spiel shows the Mouse can swallow its principles with the worst of them.

Disney has two theme parks in China, the latest being the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which opened in 2016. It’s partnered with China’s Ministry of Culture to develop the country’s film industry, knowing there are tons of yuan to be made in a market of 1.4 billion people.

That makes it a bit more dicey to fly your social-justice flag in Beijing than in Atlanta.

Iger said Disney might not film movies in Georgia after that state passed a bill prohibiting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Yet Disney’s last “Star Wars” installment was filmed in places like Ireland and Bolivia, where abortion is almost completely illegal.

It was certainly legal and enforced in China, where 336 million would-be humans were aborted under the country’s one-child policy.

That didn’t seem to bother Disney as it set up shop in China. Iger’s big on gun control, so he’s probably on board with China’s policy.

Only government security forces can have firearms. That makes it much easier to keep a million Muslims in concentration camps, which are not exactly the happiest places on earth.

And unlike in the U.S., you can be sure Disney won’t be filing any friend of the court briefs urging the Chinese Supreme Court to rule in favor of marriage equality. China isn’t really into LGBT rights, though it’s not as bad Saudi Arabia.

Being gay there is punishable by death, though that hasn’t stopped Disney from kicking around the idea of building a theme park in Saudi Arabia.

Multinational corporations deserve some leeway as they navigate these cultural waters. As Iger said, it’s complicated.

But some things are simple.

When you’re asked about an ongoing human-rights travesty abroad, you don’t go silent. Especially when you’re a trailblazing humanitarian at home.

What’s the right thing to say?

“One of our best values here in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say, and we’re allowed to speak up about injustices, and that’s just how it goes.

“And if people don’t understand that, that’s something that they have to deal with.”

That was O’Neal at an NBA opening-night party. Shaq is no Disney, but he is a one-man multinational corporation.

He says he makes more money now as an entrepreneur than he did playing basketball. Consumers have related to the 7-foot-1 man-child since he broke into the NBA with the Orlando Magic.

An NBA executive was visiting Guilin, China, back then. The New York Times reported the tour guide didn’t know who the executive was, but he introduced Guilin as “The sister city of Orlando, Fla. The home of Shaquille O’Neal!”

Shaq was a huge marketing item as the NBA opened business in China. Fans called him “Da-sha-yu,” or “Big Shark,” and “Ao-pang” — “O’Fatty.”

A shoe company erected a 50-foot statue of him in a Beijing Park in 2006. If it’s still there, Xi’s henchmen are probably dismantling it as we speak.

One of O’Neal’s jobs is analyzing the NBA for TNT, which is where Hong Kong came up. Interestingly, on-air employees at Disney-owned ESPN were told to avoid the subject.

Equally interesting, TNT initially promoted the Hong Kong discussion on Twitter, then quickly deleted it.

It must have gotten a call from NBA headquarters, which had gotten a call from Beijing’s state-controlled media department.

In this cold, calculating business drama, one giant truly stands tall.

“If something comes across my desk, and I don’t believe in it, I don’t even look at it,” O’Neal told The Wall Street Journal. “Whenever I do business, it’s not about the money.”

That’s why Orlando can be a lot prouder these days of the Big Shark than the little Mouse.

And if we like him here, they must love him in Hong Kong.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

David Whitley (dwhitley@orlandosentinel.com) is a veteran columnist and editor for the Orlando Sentinel

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©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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