Sep 8, 2020

Axios China

Welcome to a special edition of Axios China. Today we're focusing on China's growing influence in the global arts and entertainment industry. Join me for a tour of Disney in Xinjiang, colorism in Hollywood, luxury fashion in Shanghai, and lots more.

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Situational awareness: The U.S. may ban the import of all cotton products from China's northwest region of Xinjiang amid allegations of human rights violations, the New York Times reports.

Today's newsletter is 1,592 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Disney's "Mulan" was filmed in Xinjiang amid cultural genocide

The world premiere of Disney's "Mulan" at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood, California, March 9. Photo credit: 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, Axios' Sara Fischer and I write.

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 1 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 in operating the camps.
  • The CCP 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 article in Architectural Digest. (Xinjiang is not a province; it is a region).

  • Disney, however, didn't use that unique access to shed 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.
Screen grab from the credits 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 than 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 they 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.

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

Bonus: U.S. and China top the charts on cinema revenue
Data: PwC Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020–2024; Chart: Axios Visuals

China's box office is projected to soon surpass that of the U.S.

  • "Mulan" was supposed to be a big part of that. But only 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 worldwide. 

What's happening: According to Sensor Tower, Disney+ global installs across Apple’s App Store and Google Play Sept. 4–6 increased by 68% from the same period one week prior, thanks to the release of "Mulan" on Sept. 4. 

  • Disney says "Mulan" brought in $5.9 million in a small handful of its international theaters. The movie will open in China and Russia next weekend.
2. Study: Hollywood casts more light-skinned actors for Chinese market

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An academic study has found that since 2012, when the Chinese government began allowing more foreign films into the country, Hollywood movies have cast more light-skinned actors in starring roles.

Key takeaway: The researchers concluded that U.S. film studios were casting to fulfill the aesthetic preferences of Chinese movie-goers, in a culture that places a premium on light skin — a phenomenon known as colorism.

Why it matters: It's not just Chinese government censors that are influencing Hollywood. Chinese cultural preferences are too.

Details: The study, published in October 2017, examined more than 3,000 films from between 2009 and 2015 and found that films made after 2012 demonstrated an 8% increase in the number of "very light-skinned" actors in starring roles.

  • The 8% shift meant that "for 1 of every 3 films in this category, the film went from having 2 out of 3 as very light-skinned actors, to having 3 out of 3 very light-skinned actors."
  • The study's co-authors called this phenomenon a "light-skin shift."

The light-skin shift only occurred in film genres that the Chinese government typically permits into the Chinese market, such as action movies and big summer blockbusters. U.S. studios increasingly create these films from start to finish with the Chinese market in mind.

  • Film categories that aren't typically created with the Chinese market in mind, such as horror and comedy, did not show this "light-skin shift."
  • It also didn't occur among voice actors for animated films, which are popular in China and thus are otherwise often shaped by the Chinese market.

It was a Star Wars movie poster that originally inspired him to study the effects of China's colorism on Hollywood, study co-author Manuel Hermosilla told Axios.

  • In 2015, the Chinese promotional poster for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" minimized a main character, played by a black actor, leading to accusations of racism.
Image credit: Twitter account of Ray Kwong

While it's tempting to place the light-skin shift within the context of racism in Hollywood, Hermosilla warned against that.

  • "Colorism does not equate to racism," he and his co-authors wrote. "There may be significant variation in skin tones within races, and colorism may manifest within individuals of the same race."

The bottom line: Cultural influence doesn't just flow in one direction.

3. Catch up quick

1. China is set to announce its own global data security initiative. China's effort is aimed at countering U.S. attempts to bar Chinese technology from other countries. Go deeper.

2. Police in Hong Kong arrested 289 demonstrators who gathered to protest the government's decision to postpone elections for Hong Kong's legislature. Go deeper.

3. Two Australian news outlets have recalled their China correspondents over concerns for their safety, after an Australian journalist working at a Chinese state news outlet was detained.

4. U.S.-China tensions threaten supply chains in almost all industries, according to a recent McKinsey report. The exceptions are largely regional industries like glass, cement and food. Go deeper.

4. The fashion world looks to China

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The fashion industry is reeling from the stunning blow dealt by a global pandemic that closed stores, largely ended international travel, and caused consumer demand for its products to shrivel, writes Axios' Felix Salmon.

Why it matters: All paths to recovery lead through China.

Driving the news: Paris men's fashion week was entirely virtual this year, and Louis Vuitton didn't show anything at all. Instead, the venerable French couture house put on a blockbuster show in Shanghai in August, featuring designer Virgil Abloh's new menswear collection alongside older pieces that were already available in stores.

  • By the numbers: The show attracted 84,000 viewers on the Louis Vuitton website — but that number was dwarfed by the number of people who watched it live in China. It received 68 million viewers on Weibo, 18 million on Douyin, 8 million on Tencent, and millions more on other platforms.
  • Louis Vuitton shops in Shanghai, Taiwan, China and Korea all had their biggest sales weekend in history following the show, reports Fashion United's Kristopher Fraser.

What they're saying: "Department store chains are going bankrupt in the USA, and multibrand boutiques in Europe are seeing their supplies reduced," says Bernstein luxury-goods analyst Luca Solca.

How it works: China has become the most knowledgeable and sophisticated fashion market in the world — as well as the one with the greatest sheer number of consumers. It has a dizzying proliferation of style tribes and cultures, as well as a fast-growing set of domestic brands helmed by Chinese designers trained in London or New York or Antwerp.

What to watch: Fashion industry association Altagamma now expects Chinese consumers to account for 50% of the global luxury market as soon as 2025.

5. What I'm reading

Forget TikTok: China’s powerhouse app is WeChat, and its power is sweeping (New York Times)

  • "Though WeChat has different rules for users inside and outside of China, it remains a single, unified social network spanning China’s Great Firewall. In that sense, it has helped bring Chinese censorship to the world."

Related: TikTok & WeChat: Curating and controlling global information flows (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

  • This comprehensive report from Australia's top foreign policy think tank casts WeChat and TikTok as powerful tools for extending China's control over information abroad.

Beyond bullying: How my mother and I became Chinese propaganda (New Yorker)

  • If you read one personal essay this month, let it be this one by the New Yorker's Jiayang Fan. She describes her experience as the target of a vicious smear campaign of online Chinese nationalists, warping her and her mother into characters beyond recognition.
6. 1 good thing: Cirque du Soleil is still going strong in China

Performers from Cirque du Soleil pose outside a gala event in Beijing. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Before the pandemic, Canadian company Cirque du Soleil was operating around 40 of its signature acrobatics shows around the world. But the coronavirus outbreak saw almost all shows canceled. The company laid off around 90% of its staff and filed for bankruptcy protection in June.

Except in China. The company's Hangzhou show "X: The Land of Fantasy" is one of just two Cirque du Soleil shows still running, according to China-based news website Sixth Tone.

  • Read Sixth Tone's dispatch to find out how they've managed to stay afloat.