On Sept. 11, Disney released its live-action remake of the 1998 animated feature “Mulan.” The new film, starring Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei, was partially shot on location in China, and its original March release date was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the past year, the film has been controversial because of China’s human rights record.
In 2019, there were calls to boycott the film after its star Liu Yifei made a public statement in support of Hong Kong’s police during the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in that territory.
On Sept. 8, The New York Times reported there were renewed calls for a boycott after viewers noticed that the film’s credits thanked authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where some of the filming took place. Xinjiang is the epicenter of a Chinese government campaign of repression against the region’s Turkic Uighurs, who have been persecuted for being Muslim.
On Sept. 9, just two days before the film’s new release date in China, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times published an editorial denouncing the international backlash over the film, headlined “Attack on Mulan a Tragedy for American Society.”
"Xinjiang has rid itself of chaos, and people have been living a normal and stable life,” the editorial’s anonymous author wrote. “This is reality. The vocational education and training centers have contributed to the situation, which is not hard to understand. But the political and opinion elites in the US and the West refuse to face up to the reality. They give the training centers and the situation in Xinjiang a malicious and rude label.”
That is misleading.
In 2018, after a United Nations panel accused China of arbitrarily detaining Uighurs in camps, China initially denied such camps existed. As evidence began emerging from former camp inmates, leaked official documents and satellite photos of the facilities themselves, Chinese official denials shifted to claims that the camps were “vocational training centers.”
Former inmates, however, have described camp regimens that include forcing detainees to sing Communist party songs, watch propaganda films and deny their Muslim faith. Even outside the camps, Uighurs face persecution for publicly observing Muslim traditions like wearing long beards or hijabs and fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Since the backlash over Disney’s collaboration with Xinjiang authorities, Reuters has reported that Chinese state media initiated a media blackout of coverage of the film just prior to its scheduled Sept. 11 release. China is the world’s second-largest film market after the United States.
The entertainment industry magazine Variety also reported on the Chinese media’s blackout of coverage, suggesting that could explain the film’s poor results in tracking surveys in China, along with other factors, including competition from pirated versions and the espionage thriller “Tenet.”
Just before the Reuters story broke, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sent an open letter to Disney, condemning its collaboration with the Chinese authorities and questioning whether Disney would continue to show the film.
“Your decision to uncritically approve this film’s release rather than apologizing to those harmed by Disney’s actions is reprehensible,” Hawley, a Republican and religious conservative from the state of Missouri, wrote to Disney CEO Robert Chapek.
“Your decision to put profit over principle, to not just ignore the CCP’s genocide and other atrocities but to aid and abet them, is an affront to American values."
The film has noticeably underperformed at Chinese box offices, taking in only $23.2 million in ticket sales at its opening weekend, according to CNN.