Sep 8, 2020 - World

Disney's Mulan was filmed in Xinjiang amid cultural genocide

 The World Premiere of Disney's 'MULAN' at the Dolby Theatre on March 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California.
The World Premiere of Disney's 'Mulan' at the Dolby Theatre on March 9, 2020 in Hollywood, California. Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney

This weekend, Disney revealed that some scenes from its live action remake of the 1998 animated classic "Mulan" were filmed in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is engaged in a campaign of cultural and demographic genocide against indigenous minorities.

Why it matters: The riches promised by China's massive domestic film market are buying the silence — and even complicity — of one of America's most powerful entertainment empires.

Details: In the credits for the film, which was released over the weekend on the streaming platform Disney+, 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 those entities is the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda commission in Xinjiang, which has produced disinformation justifying the detention camps.
  • Another is a local branch of the regional Xinjiang public security bureau, which in July became subject to new U.S. government sanctions due to its role operating the camps.
  • The Chinese Communist Party tightly controls information and travel in Xinjiang. Foreign journalists, human rights organizations, and foreign government officials have all been denied access.

But Disney employees received special access. In addition to time spent filming, the production team "spent months in and around the northwest province of Xinjiang to do legwork research before the cameras rolled," according to a Sept. 4 interview with Architectural Digest. (Xinjiang is not a province; it is a region).

  • Disney, however, didn't use that unique access to shed a light on what is widely recognized as the largest internment of an ethnic-religious group since World War II.
  • The film does not feature any Uighur characters and refers to Xinjiang in the subtitles as "northwest China," erasing the region's independent identity and reflecting Chinese government propaganda that Xinjiang has "belonged to China since ancient times."
  • Disney did not respond to a request for comment.
A screen grab of the credits for the film Mulan, in which Disney thanks the Chinese Communist Party.
Screen grab from the credits roll of Disney's Mulan. Image: Twitter account of Jeannette Ng

The big picture: The Chinese government has learned how to leverage access to its lucrative domestic markets, forcing companies around the world to actively support the government's policies in order to access those markets.

  • Other Hollywood studios have also been accused of pandering to the Chinese government, but Disney's theme park business in China makes it even more dependent on continued access to the Chinese market.
  • Former Disney CEO Bob Iger said in his autobiography that he went to Shanghai more 40 times in 18 years to build Shanghai Disneyland.

Companies are increasingly caught in the middle. The U.S. sanctions on the Xinjiang public security bureau, which were issued in July, didn't exist when Disney was filming in Xinjiang but will now force companies to navigate an increasingly complicated regulatory environment, said James Treanor, special counsel at the law firm Cadwalader.

  • "This is an example of the risk going forward for U.S. companies that have any dealings with Xinjiang as sanctions and other restrictive measures are ramped up. The risks are increasing accordingly," Treanor told Axios.

By the numbers: Time will tell whether making Mulan available for a $30 fee on Disney+ will help the company bring in as much money as analysts predicted it would in the pre-pandemic theater era — $1 billion USD worldwide. 

  • According to Sensor Tower, Disney+ global installs across Apple’s App Store and Google Play between Friday, September 4 and Sunday, September 6 increased by 68% from the same period one week prior, thanks to the release of Mulan on Friday. 
  • Disney says Mulan brought in $5.9 million in a small handful of its international theaters. Next weekend Mulan will open in China.  

Our thought bubble: The company had many months of pandemic-related film delays to reveal that some scenes were filmed in Xinjiang, but instead waited until consumers bought their tickets or paid the $30 to stream the film at home.

What to watch: Some Twitter users are using the hashtag #boycottMulan to urge viewers to avoid the film.

Go deeper: China is censoring Hollywood's imagination

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