As much as we loved Disney’s latest Mulan reboot (read the review here), it’s garnered a whole lot of criticism and highlighted a human rights issue that keeps being ignored – particularly by the large organisations who have the power to fight it. Let’s take a look at why people are mad about Mulan, and discuss the latest Disney controversy to make headlines.
Disney made some massive strides with its latest live-action reboot, by including an all-asian cast and some themes that shun the dull heteronormativity of your average Disney Princess movie. The film gave us not one, but two, strong and vibrant female heroines and emphasised loyalty to family, truth and bravery as being aspirational, instead of finding a prince and riding off into the sunset. But after enjoying all that improvement, some viewers noticed something in the credits that disappointed and horrified them.
In the credits, Disney thanked eight government bodies in Xinjiang – a Chinese province in which 2 million Uighur Muslims have been detained in concentration camps by the Chinese government. According to Alex Ward, writing for Vox, parts of the movie were shot in Xinjiang two years ago, “well after the world knew about Beijing’s plan to ‘reeducate’ Uighurs with Communist Party doctrine”. If you’re still unaware of this massive, ongoing human rights violation don’t worry, we’re here to break it down for you.
What the heck is China doing in Xinjiang?
According to reports, US Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech way back in October 2018 that “For a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights. But in recent years, China has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people.”
He said this in response to the mass detention of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the province of Xinjiang since April 2017.
According to information garnered from US intelligence and open sourced reporting, most of the detainees are not being charged with crimes, and their families are given no information about their whereabouts or wellbeing. The reasons given for their detention are often arbitrary, and cannot be contested.
At first, China tried to deny that these camps existed at all, despite all the evidence that they did. When they did admit to their existence, they referred to them as “vocational education centres”, designed to teach young people the Chinese language and skills they could put to use in the job market – conveniently forgetting about the renowned Uighur intellectuals and retired professionals also being held there.
The campaign in Xinjiang has come to be referred to as a form of demographic genocide in which China gone to great pains to limit the growth of this Muslim population, even as it encourages its Han majority to have more babies. According to an article by Associated Press, “The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilisation and even abortion on hundreds of thousands, the interviews and data show. Even while the use of IUDs and sterilisation has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang”.
“Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps,” the AP found, “with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines. Police raid homes, terrifying parents as they search for hidden children.”
And this is far from being only speculation and anti-China propaganda. Former detainees themselves have come out saying that once in the camps, they undergo rigorous communist party brainwashing, food deprivation, beatings, cold cells, and sexual abuse. In particular, they’re forced to renounce Islam and embrace the communist party.
According to the LA Times, James Tager, a researcher with free-expression advocacy group PEN America says the Mulan situation is especially problematic. “Beijing’s influence over Hollywood goes beyond having blind spots for certain policies,” Tager said. “[This is] arguably more actively sending a message to audiences of, ‘nothing to see here.’”
Disney could hardly claim ignorance of this massive human rights issue, now or when they were filming, and it’s no wonder that Mulan has brought on the controversy it has.
Is that all that people are mad about?
Hang on, there’s more. Not only was the movie filmed in collaboration with the government of a province accused of genocide towards its Muslim population, but the film itself has been accused of promoting Han Supremism and Islamophobia.
Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the Chinese government’s oppression of Uighurs told Ward that the villains in the new Mulan are clearly coded as Muslims – they’re dark-skinned, wearing turbans, and some experts argue that their clothes are eerily similar to those seen in ISIS terrorist videos.
Byler argues that the film “traffics in Islamophobia,” and presents its protagonist as “a defender of the Chinese colonisation of northwest China.”
Furthermore, during the Hong Kong protests that were making global headlines last year, Liu Yifei (who plays Mulan herself) publicly supported police and officials in Hong Kong who were fighting against pro-democracy demonstrators. Her statement against the pro-democracy movement prompted the initial #BoycottMulan hashtag that made the rounds on social media platforms, and lingers there even after the release of the film on Disney+.
“#BoycottMulan has shown that the Chinese government’s human rights violations will no longer be ignored — and even companies as powerful as Disney may need to change how they engage with China going forward,” writes Ward.
Surely, a company with as much clout as Disney, and with a massive viewership in China, could have done more to acknowledge and help fight the alleged genocide happening within its borders? According to Ward, “that could mean not filming in the country anymore, delaying releases for their viewers, or — at the most extreme level — completely cutting ties with the country”.
But China is of course a key market, particularly in the case of Mulan, and so Disney’s choice to appease Beijing speaks volumes about its priorities.
“But any one of those options, from the smallest to the nuclear one, are hard for any corporation to take, mainly because China is such a large and lucrative market. And if companies do anything to anger Beijing, like not promote a government-friendly narrative in a movie about China, there’s a chance Disney would lose access to that market,” writes Ward.
Regardless of Disney’s attempts to please the market that criticised the original animated film for being too Western, the new film’s reception in China was tepid, so it hardly seems their choice to prioritise financial gain from the Chinese market over the human rights of 2 million people was even worth it.
The criticism about the latest version of Mulan is not the first, nor will it be the last, big Disney controversy, but it does highlight the fact that people are starting to stand up against large organisations that neglect human rights. We’re living in an age where one cannot plead ignorance over these issues – particularly if you’re a brand as large and influential and Disney. And attempting to do so has significantly marred the reputation what was otherwise a really enjoyable movie.