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Excitement about Disney’s live-action remakes of some of its most popular movies has been intense, and the anticipation surrounding Mulan was no exception. The animated version of an ancient Chinese ballad about a female warrior, released in 1998, had represented a meaningful step forward for Disney at the time, presenting a heroine who was not a princess, fought for herself, and appealed directly to moviegoers with Chinese heritage by recounting a popular story that paid tribute to their cultural background.

To bring this non-princess, woman of color to the screen in the live-action remake, Disney strongly sought to maintain its ethical and conscious positioning. It committed to hiring a female director and Asian cast, to avoid the controversies that have arisen around movies that cast White actors in roles representing people of color. It consulted with various experts to ensure its telling of the story resonated with cultural themes, cut a romantic kiss that Chinese audiences found problematic, and avoided citing any particular historical dynasty to avoid associations with potentially violent historical figures. Although most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand, the filmmakers also made sure to shoot a few scenes in China, to ensure authenticity and appeal to local audiences.

That last bit is where the problem arose though. Some of the background scenes shot in China were taken in the Xinjiang region. That region is home to approximately 1 million ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China that has experienced significant oppression. Currently, the Chinese government has forced members of the group into detention camps—moves that have prompted vocal protests from advocates who regard the mandatory internment as a horrific abuse of human rights. The U.S. government has cited these abuses as a justification for condemning and sanctioning China.

When Disney, in the ninth minute of its 10-minute end credit roll, thanked local authorities in Xinjiang for allowing it to film there, it thought it was effectively and appropriately acknowledging the contributions of Chinese partners and avoiding allegations of cultural exploitation. Yet at the same time, by doing so it was alerting protesters to its willingness to film in an area that is notorious for human rights abuses and thanking local groups that are complicit in holding member of an ethnic and religious minority group in detention centers.

Stuck between this proverbial rock and hard place, Disney has offered little comment in response to protests. Its choices are clearly limited. If it repudiates China’s human rights violations, it risks angering Chinese authorities and audiences. In the past, the country’s central government has blocked or delayed releases of films that it regarded as problematic, including the animated version of Mulan. That history was part of the reason that Disney sought to be so careful and respectful of Chinese history and culture in the modern version. China represents a massive film market, likely to overtake the United States soon as the top source of box office revenues, so Disney (and virtually every film studio) relies on the strong performance of its films among Chinese audiences. Beyond appealing to film audiences, Disney also has opened a theme park and resort in Shanghai, and it is seeking to expand its Hong Kong Disneyland. As a global company, it needs to secure a strong brand positioning in China, to ensure its continued advantages and growth.

If instead it chooses not to explain or justify its filming in, and thus implicit support for, Xinjiang, Disney risks angering and alienating human rights groups, as well as the U.S. government. Members of the U.S. Senate issued a formal letter, asking Disney to explain its decision to film in the controversial region. At the same time, a #BoycottMulan social media campaign gained some traction.

Arguably, Disney receives such criticism because of its substantial brand awareness and global status. There are various companies with operations and factories in Xinjiang, none of which have been criticized to the same extent. Furthermore, to compete globally, it must take into consideration the perspectives and preferences of different cultural entities. In this particular case, doing so is especially challenging, because in the current political climate, China and the United States have entered into a contentious state in their international relations, marked by allegations of human rights and ethical abuses on both sides.

Disney is a U.S.-based company, which means it competes according to a capitalist model that requires it to continue growing and strengthening its position in various markets. It also is a global corporation that needs to appeal to various target audiences, in ways that might seem contrary to U.S. values and ideals. It’s an ongoing, difficult battle. It may need a hero like Mulan to emerge victorious.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the responsibilities of large, international companies, such as Disney, in relation to human rights crises around the world?
  2. How should Disney respond to this controversy?
  3. Why is China such an important market for Disney, and Hollywood in general?

Source: Brooks Barnes and Any Qin, “Disney Wanted to Make a Splash in China with ‘Mulan.’ It Stumbled Instead,” The New York Times, September 12, 2020; R.T. Watson, “Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Tops China Box Office Amid Controversy,” The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2020