Mulan Film Accused of White-washing Chinese History and Human Rights Abuses

Disney’s new live action retelling of Mulan has had a rough start at the box office, due not just to COVID and mediocre reviews, but to a series of political and human rights concerns with its production and storyline. Chief among these concerns is the fact that scenes in the film were shot in Xinjiang, site of a network of internment camps holding up to two million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim detainees, and the film’s credits thank local Xinjiang authorities.

Amy Qin and Edward Wong of The New York Times report on the subsequent backlash to the film:

It began blowing up again on Monday, when several social media users noticed that in the film’s credits, Disney thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, a region in China’s Far West that is home to the Uighurs. The predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority have lived for years under increasingly expansive surveillance and repression in the region.

The entities mentioned in the movie’s credits included the police bureau in Turpan, an ancient Silk Road city in eastern Xinjiang that has a large Uighur population. Last October, the Trump administration placed that bureau and other police organizations in Xinjiang on a blacklist that forbids U.S. companies to sell or supply products to them. It was not immediately clear on Tuesday whether U.S. officials would scrutinize Disney’s work with government agencies in Xinjiang.

[…] The details of Disney’s partnership with the authorities in Xinjiang are unclear. The company did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Tuesday morning. Calls to the regional and local propaganda departments in Xinjiang and Turpan on Tuesday also went unanswered. [Source]

In The Washington Post, Isaac Stone Fish further explains why the Mulan credits raised such alarms:

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. [ Source]

Disney’s Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy defended the film’s production, while admitting that the company was facing “a lot of issues” over the film, as reported by Michelle Toh of CNN Business:

“Mulan was primarily shot in, almost the entirety, in New Zealand. And in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country of China for this historically period piece drama, we filmed scenery in 20 different locations in China,” McCarthy told analysts at the conference, which was held virtually.

McCarthy said it was “common knowledge” that filming in China requires the permission of government publicity departments, and noted that it is standard practice to “acknowledge in the film’s credits, the national and local governments that allowed you to film there.”

“So in our credits, that was recognized, both China as well as locations in New Zealand. And I would just leave it at that,” she said. “But that’s generated a lot of issues for us.” [Source]

In response to the controversy over the use of Xinjiang as a film locale, authorities in China issued a directive banning media coverage of the movie before its release, a move likely to negatively impact box office sales in the country. From Reuters:

Chinese authorities have told major media outlets not to cover Walt Disney’s release of “Mulan”, in an order issued after controversy erupted overseas over the film’s links with the Xinjiang region, four people familiar with matter told Reuters.

[…] Three sources told Reuters media outlets had received the notice, two of whom said it was sent by the Cyberspace Administration of China. A fourth source at a major Chinese newspaper said he received a text message with a similar order from a senior colleague.

No reason was given in the notice, but the sources said they believed it was because of the overseas backlash over the film’s links to Xinjiang.

Neither the Cyberspace Administration or Disney immediately responded to requests for comment. [Source]

Mulan had first faced calls for a global boycott when the film was announced and its lead actress, Liu Yifei, publicly expressed support for Hong Kong police at the height of democracy protests there. Uyghur activists are now joining the calls for a boycott, calling the film a white-washing of the human rights abuses and cultural destruction currently ongoing in Xinjiang. Uyghur American Ziba Murat writes in The Washington Post:

My mother, Gulshan Abbas, a Uighur retired medical doctor, was abducted from her home in Urumqi on Sept. 11, 2018. Urumqi is just 119 miles from Turpan — a city that is credited in the recently released live-action Disney interpretation of “Mulan.” (The credit sequence of the film thanks Turpan’s public safety bureau, which is responsible for the camps in the area, and other government entities in Xinjiang.) For the past two years, I have struggled to get any information on my mother’s whereabouts, and I can’t help but wonder if my mother is being held in one of the concentration camps in Turpan.

Our homeland is beautiful and picturesque in many ways, boasting ideal scenery for shooting a movie. But it is also a place where journalists do not have access, information is censored and criticism is silenced. I myself have been denied any information about my mother’s condition or location. My mother believed that living a simple, peaceful life in service to others was the only protection from trouble she needed. But trouble came to find her all the same. This trouble was aided and funded by corporations that valued Chinese blood money more than integrity and human lives.

The most crushing reality of all is that Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan, has used her platform to speak against freedom and support the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party. As an immigrant to the United States, I wish I could rejoice in her success story, but I don’t relate to her and her decision to use the platform she has in the United States to defend a system that oppresses so many. The idea that she may have filmed the story of Mulan in the land where my mother could be imprisoned in a concentration camp is devastating. [Source]

Jewher Ilham, the U.S.-based daughter of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 on charges of separatism, writes for the Daily Beast about the connections between Mulan, Disney, and oppression in Xinjiang:

In many ways, I can identify with the title character in Disney’s Mulan films, based on the ancient Chinese legend. In the story, as China calls up the men from every family to defend against a foreign invasion, Mulan dresses as a boy and fights in the place of her father, who is too old to go himself. As a child growing up in Beijing, I loved the legend and the fun Disney cartoon version produced in 1998. Little did I know that I, like Mulan, would later be fighting for my own father—helping to carry on his work while he is unjustly imprisoned. I hope, like her, to achieve victory by one day gaining my father’s release.

Today, sadly, a new retelling of the Mulan story, once again by Disney, is profiting from the oppression of my people. This live-action version was filmed partly in the Uighur region—officially known in China as “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region”—where the Chinese Communist government is holding at least one million members of Turkic ethnic minorities in concentration camps as part of a coordinated genocidal campaign. My father, if he is alive, may be among them—nobody will allow us to visit him, or even tell us where he is.

Despite widespread international condemnation of China’s brutal tactics in Xinjiang, Disney still chose to go there to film this movie, delivering money and the prestige of an international “family” brand to those directly engaged in genocide. Adding insult to injury, in the closing credits, they even made sure to thank the local government “bureau of public security” (also known as state police) and “publicity department” (or propaganda). These are the very same government agencies in the Uighur region that are imprisoning Uighurs and other Turkic minorities, and then telling their families and the international press they are merely being held in “training centers.” The “public security” office is currently under sanctions by the U.S. government for human rights abuses. [Source]

Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong wrote an op-ed for The Independent calling on Disney to remove the film from its streaming service:

The cooperation between Disney and the authorities suggests that the House of Mouse sees the Chinese market as essential for its business to expand. The potential box office revenue in China is huge compared to other countries and Disney has a long relationship with China, having worked closely with the authorities before to launch the Disneyland resort in Shanghai in 2016.

Before Beijing’s reputation experienced a devastating blow because of the coronavirus, the world was very open to what China had to offer in terms of entertainment and culture. However, the increasing number of reports revealing the government’s intention to expand its encroaching authoritarianism, and the recent trade war between Beijing and the US, has struck a nerve with many consumers worldwide.

There is now uneasiness about choosing Chinese products and businesses are more wary about entering the country’s market for fear of being seen to support the regime. The world has come to realise that however beneficial a deal with Beijing may seem, it always comes with a higher price to pay – in this case our consciences.

The backlash against Mulan has rightly sparked international concerns – it’s a movie that seeks to entertain but turns out to be causing misery in the hearts of those who care about human rights and freedom. Surely Disney ought to disclose whatever deal it made with the Xinjiang authorities, as well as any subsidies, funding, assistance and instructions that it has received from the authorities there. The movie is now widely considered as an attempt to spread propaganda and whitewash China’s alleged cultural genocide, to distract the world from what is happening in the region. [Source]

For some, concerns over Mulan are not just over the production and filming location, but with the way the traditional story is depicted in the movie and the nationalistic, Han-centric twist that was added in. Jeannette Ng writes about this for a piece in Foreign Policy:

But the rotten heart of Mulan as a film, rather than its production process, is the accidental regurgitation of China’s current nationalist myths as part of a messy, confused, and boring film. The title card fades into a location said to be the “Silk Road, Northwest China.” This is, of course, Xinjiang—here set up by the narrative frame as an inalienable part of China that Mulan must defend for her father, her family, and her emperor. That’s not the historical reality—or even the reality of the original poem the stories are based on, which depicts Mulan as the servant of a khan of the Northern Wei dynasty, not an all-powerful Chinese emperor.

A smattering of lines hint at something darker without imparting any complexity, as the villain Bori Khan makes passing reference to his conquered homeland. The implication, perhaps, is that his father was a leader of the now colonized “Northwest China” before the reigning emperor killed him. Bori Khan “unites the tribes” and is served by black-clad elite guards who are heavily coded as Middle Eastern assassins, bringing a splash of Islamophobia into the mix.

[…] None of this feels intentional. The film was put together by a team of Western scriptwriters who seem to have done very little homework, resulting in a jumbled mess whose absorption of China’s nationalist myths is largely unconscious. Given the realities of filming in China, it’s likely that scripts also had to pass the censors’ approval, resulting in cuts that reinforced this. As a film, Mulan has no confidence in the multiple filmic languages and genres that it draws on. It isn’t that historical inaccuracy or deviation from established wuxia tropes is paramount so much as that this doesn’t feel like a knowing subversion or a stylistic choice motivated by a strong artistic vision; it just feels incompetent.

[…] Instead it defaults to a series of clichés the screenwriters seem to think represent Chinese culture; po-faced duty, filial piety, magic fights. And yet it arrives at the most depressing and narrow version of the story possible: Service to the emperor will absolve you of all your deviant faults. [Source]

Ng further explores issues of Han hegemony and Chinese nationalism in Mulan in an essay on Medium.

The Chinese government’s increasing influence over Hollywood films–leverage that is wielded through controlled access to the Chinese market–and Hollywood’s increasing reliance on Chinese ticket sales have dramatically impacted the content, casting, and distribution of American movies in recent years. A recent report by PEN America looks at the growing control Chinese authorities have over Hollywood productions and the ways movie producers often make decisions based on the Chinese market and accessibility. In The Washington Post, the University of Virginia’s Aynne Kokas writes that Mulan “exemplifies how Beijing has deputized [Hollywood] to advance China’s political interests and national narrative.” She writes further:

The economic stakes for Hollywood studios are clear — given the continued uncertainty in the United States, access to the Chinese market is an existential issue. Until now, the signs of Beijing’s influence mostly have been subtle, if controversial: “Top Gun: Maverick” excised a prominent display of the Taiwan flag on Maverick’s iconic bomber jacket; “Abominable” showed a map reflecting China’s South China Sea maritime claim, one disputed by both its neighbors and the U.S. government.

Not so with “Mulan,” which directly evokes Zhang Yimou’s 2002 historical fantasy, “Hero,” in its themes, style and overt nationalism. “Mulan” echoes Zhang’s sumptuous visual style, replete with aerial shots of Chinese soldiers awash in primary colors. In “Hero,” characters sacrificed themselves for the spirit of “tianxia,” referring to the heavenly mandate of Chinese leadership, just as in “Mulan,” members of the imperial guard leave their secured fortress to charge the Rouran, innumerable soldiers perishing on the battlefield. The movies even share a star in Jet Li, who played the rebel turned imperial loyalist in “Hero” and portrays the yellow emperor in “Mulan.”

But where “Hero” — made by Chinese studios, hailed in the mainland and breaking box office records — was heavily criticized for its authoritarian messaging when it played abroad, “Mulan” inverts this dynamic. It’s the product of an American studio, which finds itself in the unprecedented position of selling Han Chinese nationalism to China. [Source]


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