Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 8 September 2020


 Why Disney’s new ‘Mulan’ is a scandal
Opinion by Isaac Stone Fish
September 8 at 2:12 am AET

An ad for Disney's "Mulan" in Hollywood on March 13.  (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
The most devastating part of “Mulan,” Disney’s much-anticipated live-action remake of the 1998 animated film, isn’t the story. It’s the credits. The film retells the ancient Chinese tale of Hua Mulan, a filial daughter who dresses as a man to join the army, honor her father and save the emperor. While the film engenders pride for China, it does so with a subtle touch: Besides a few mentions of defending the Silk Road, a favorite trading route of Chinese Communist Party leaderXi Jinping, little links it to the modern-day country. The New York Times called it “lightly funny and a little sad, filled with ravishing landscapes.”
But there’s a dark side to those landscapes. Disney filmed “Mulan” in regions across China (among other locations). In the credits, Disney offers a special thanks to more than a dozen Chinese institutions that helped with the film. These include four Chinese Communist Party propaganda departments in the region of Xinjiang as well as the Public Security Bureau of the city of Turpan in the same region — organizations that are facilitating crimes against humanity. It’s sufficiently astonishing that it bears repeating: Disney has thanked four propaganda departments and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that is the site of one of the world’s worst human rights abuses happening today.
More than a million Muslims in Xinjiang, mostly of the Uighur minority, have been imprisoned in concentration camps. Some have been released. Countless numbers have died. Forced sterilization campaigns have caused the birth rate in Xinjiang to plummet roughly 24 percent in 2019 — and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” fits within the legally recognized definition of genocide. Disney, in other words, worked with regions where genocide is occurring, and thanked government departments that are helping to carry it out.
Turpan has been directly implicated in these crimes. In 2017, Communist Party officials in the city faced a problem. Like officials throughout the region, they had begun to round up Muslims and send them to concentration camps. But Muslim students from other parts of the country were returning home and asking officials about their parents. And so officials prepared a detailed question-and-answer guide. “They’re in a training school,” officials were chillingly taught to reply. “They have very good conditions for studying and living there, and you have nothing to worry about.”
That answer couldn’t be further from the truth.
Why did Disney need to work in Xinjiang? It didn’t. There are plenty of other regions in China, and countries around the world, that offer the starkly beautiful mountain scenery present in the film. But in doing so, Disney helps normalize a crime against humanity.
It’s unclear exactly what the “Mulan” story’s relationship with Xinjiang is; Disney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Some of the crew members, such as the production designer Grant Major, spent months in and around Xinjiang, while the director Niki Caro visited Xinjiang at least once, on a scouting mission in September 2017, according to her Instagram.
Disney executives had thought that the original “Mulan” would please both the Chinese government and Chinese filmgoers. But because Disney had distributed “Kundun” (1997), a film glorifying the Dalai Lama, Beijing restricted the studio’s ability to work in China. Disney spent the next several years trying to get back into the party’s good graces. “We made a stupid mistake in releasing ‘Kundun,’” the then-CEO of Disney Michael Eisner told Premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”
Since then, Disney has endeavored to please Beijing. The rewards have been immense, culminating in the successful opening of Shanghai Disneyland in June 2016. This park, Disney’s Executive Chairman Bob Iger said, is the “greatest opportunity the company has had since Walt Disney himself bought land in Central Florida.” Partnering with Xinjiang is another step that binds Disney closer to the party.
In 1946, Disney released “Song of the South,” which glorified life on a plantation in painfully racist terms. Rightfully ashamed, Disney later pulled the film — it’s now difficult to find a copy. Mulan is arguably Disney’s most problematic movie since then. Not because of its content, but because of the shameful compromises Disney made in order to shoot it.

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