Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck squealed and waddled across Chinese television screens on a recent Sunday night, and top officers of the Disney Productions said they expected the debut would open up a vast market for their products. Walt Disney's world of animated entertainment has not been seen in China for 40 years, and company executives were unusually optimistic that they would profit from the venture.
``There are at least three generations of children in China who don't know who Mickey and Donald were,'' said Frank G. Wells, Disney's president and chief operating officer.
Under an agreement signed with China Central Television (CCTV), the cartoons will be aired for two years to an audience described by company chairman Michael D. Eisner as ``large to gigantic.''
A Chinese television official said the initial audience was estimated at 30 million and could expand with time. About 60 percent of China's population of 1.05 billion can receive television, and children's programming reaches about 13 percent of the country's 300 million children, according to surveys by CCTV.
Disney executives said their agreement was much swifter than expected, though it appeared the deal involved no direct cash outlay by the Chinese side. Mr. Wells said Disney will sell two minutes of commerical advertising to foreign companies during each half-hour segment at rates that have not been publicly announced. CCTV is responsible for dubbing the programs into Chinese.
The deputy director of China Central Television, Hong Minsheng, said he was not concerned about competition between the large inventory of Disney cartoons with other cartoons now featured on China's television network.
``Chinese children need to absorb various kinds of good nourishment, be it the Golden Monkey, Donald Duck, or Mickey Mouse,'' Mr. Hong said. Golden Monkey is a mythical character from Chinese literature popular on TV and in the theater.
Disney executives in Peking last week said their entry into China was a major element in the company's expansion, which includes plans for a European Disneyland, with construction to begin next year near Paris. In China, the company expects quickly to follow up the television venture by making available the Disney line of consumer products.
``We guessed that the consumers of China are ready for Mickey and Donald in their stores, and we hope we can satisfy them,'' Wells said.
He said the company's first move toward entering the China market was to acquaint TV audiences with the Disney characters. He and Mr. Eisner said they hope the consumer products arm of the company will expand rapidly after that, though he said so far there are ``no special arrangements whatever'' to license and produce Disney products here.
Access to the Chinese market has proved extremely difficult for other foreign companies. There are strict limits on how much production from Chinese-foreign joint ventures may be sold in China and restrictions on repatriation of profits from joint-venture investments.
``I am quite convinced that after Mickey and Donald have been on TV for two years, the appeal of these characters will be so great we won't have the problems other companies have had,'' Wells said.
The images of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are already known in China, though not in their original form. There is a Donald Duck fast-food restaurant in Peking, and characters resembling Mickey and Donald decorate the neon marquee of Peking's Friendship Store, which is stocked with merchandise for foreigners. Mugs and T-shirts, sold as souvenirs at tourist spots such as the Great Wall, also exploit the images.
Company officers said they were seriously concerned with trademark problems and had received ``steadfast assurances'' from Chinese trademark officials that any violations would be prosecuted. The company has applied for trademark protecton for 300 items.