Disney’s “Mulan” ignites the company’s worst controversy in years

Disney’s “Mulan” ignites the company’s worst controversy in years
Source: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP
Disney’s decision to film “Mulan” in Xinjiang could solidify a worrying trend of major studios ignoring appalling human rights abuses to court Chinese money.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on global economies, “Mulan,” Disney’s latest live-action update of an animated classic, was expected to be one of the year’s biggest theatrical draws. There were still expectations that the film could use a novel streaming launch on Disney+ to make a profit, but revelations that the movie was partly filmed in Xinjiang, China have led to a backlash.

Xinjiang, located in northwest China, is an autonomous region where an estimated million or more Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim minority, are being held in detention camps. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its state-run media have denied mistreatment of the minority population, firsthand accounts and video evidence undercut those denials.

Beyond being filmed in Xinjiang, the credits of “Mulan” thank the Chinese government agencies that have defended or spread disinformation about the detention of the Uighurs. Social media users have expressed their outrage at Disney with the hashtag #BoycottMulan, which has drawn the attention of both celebrities and politicians.

Compounding matters, #BoycottMulan had already been trending in the weeks prior to the film’s release due to the movie’s lead actress, Liu Yifei, voicing support for Hong Kong police’s suppression of pro-democracy protests. Protesters have been clashing with police in Hong Kong for over a year, with law enforcement at times using pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons to quell the protests.

China has grown into the most lucrative international market for Hollywood studios, with many movie productions filming in China or adding regional elements to appeal to Chinese moviegoers. Disney’s decision to film “Mulan” in Xinjiang could solidify a worrying trend of major studios ignoring appalling human rights abuses to court Chinese money.

Filming “Mulan” in Xinjiang

On September 8, following the Labor Day release of “Mulan” on Disney+, Disney’s recently launched streaming service, Axios reported that the movie’s credits revealed that the film was partially filmed in Xinjiang.

Furthermore, Axios reports, “the company thanks several Xinjiang entities directly involved in the operation or promotion of mass internment camps that analysts estimate are holding one million or more ethnic minorities.”

One of the agencies specifically mentioned in the credits is the Publicity Department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee. Axios calls the committee the “Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda commission in Xinjiang” and says it “has produced disinformation justifying the detention camps.”

Also mentioned in the credits is the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security, which was recently among the groups placed under sanctions by the United States for its role in the detention and genocide of Uighurs.

The filming of “Mulan” in Xinjiang (identified only as “northwest China” in the film) is also notable because it was a rare instance of American media gaining access to the region. The Chinese government has strictly restricted information coming out of Xinjiang, even expelling journalists who have reported on the human rights abuses there.

Disney has been criticized for being granted access to the region but not using that access to bring greater attention to the plight of the Uighurs.

Xinjiang is both one of the country’s most ethnically diverse regions and the region in which, for many years, there has been the highest concentration of Muslims. Of the nation’s 20 million Muslims, roughly half live in Xinjiang.

What is really happening to the Uighurs?

The Chinese government maintains that the Uighurs are not being mistreated in Xinjiang. The official terminology of the CCP for the camps is “vocational training centers,” which they insist are used to help “educate and transform” Muslims who they deem vulnerable to extremist indoctrination. The government claims there are only a few hundred thousand in the centers.

There is ample evidence, however, that China’s attempts to paint what is happening in Xinjiang in benign colors is pure propaganda. Additionally, China has even been accused of cultivating foreign journalists to help spread disinformation about the detention camps.

The findings of Western governments and human rights groups contradict the claims of the CCP. It is estimated that between one and three million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being detained. These numbers are based on drone footage of the region as well as firsthand accounts by Uighurs who have been in the camps.

In June 2020, the Islamic Human Rights Commission published “Grief Observed: Uighur Testimonies.” The report includes findings culled from interviews with “individuals who had been repeatedly arrested and tortured, who have been held in so-called ‘re-education camps’ as well as those who had fled following the persecution of family members.”

The testimonies included descriptions of a police state that monitored all Muslims with biometric scans and CCTV surveillance. The people were punished for openly exhibiting any evidence of their religious culture. Additionally, torture was used “to extract confessions as well as persuade individuals to provide names of others practicing Islam.”

Other documented crimes based on these firsthand accounts include systematic rape of women in the camps, children being separated from parents and incarcerated and forced indoctrination.

Is the boycott working?

It is too early to say if the boycott of “Mulan” will have a clear effect, but the film’s underwhelming performance so far may dissuade other studios from risking the bad publicity.

When the film was released on Disney+ over the Labor Day holiday weekend, it brought in US$33.5 million in streaming sales. Due to the ongoing struggles of the film industry amid the coronavirus pandemic, Disney opted to forgo a traditional theatrical release and attempt a new strategy. Subscribers to their streaming platform could pay US$29.99 for “Premium Access” to the film.

This wasn’t the first major studio film to skip theaters for home streaming, but it was one of the most expensive. And “Mulan” is still only available to subscribers of Disney+.

Since there is no precedent for this type of release and thus nothing to compare it with, it’s hard to say if that US$33.5 million haul could be called a success. It certainly was far short of pre-COVID expectations for the theatrical release. The previous live-action remake of a Disney animated film released into theaters, “The Lion King,” made over US$191 million in its opening weekend in July 2019.

In the foreign markets where “Mulan” has opened in movie theaters, the box office results have been mixed. In its first weekend of release, the film topped the box office in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, for a total of nearly US$6 million.

The following week, though, its China opening brought in a disappointing US$23.2 million, less than half what “The Lion King” earned in its opening weekend in China last year. Those numbers could reflect the boycott due to the Hong Kong protests, or merely disinterest. The original animated version barely caused a ripple when it was released in China in 1999.

The only major studio movie to attempt a domestic theater release in the US since the pandemic began, the Christopher Nolan thriller “Tenet,” has also struggled at the box office. It will thus be hard to say how much the #BoycottMulan drive is responsible for the film’s performance, as opposed to the pandemic.

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