China’s government allows only about thirty-four Hollywood movies to be shown in Chinese theaters. As a result, entertainment companies like Disney go out of their way to make sure a film appeals to both North American crowds and Chinese Communist Party’s censors. Of course, what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allows and doesn’t allow in films is vague and subject to change, which keeps foreign film-makers guessing.
Mulan, Disney’s latest attempt to please both the North American and the Chinese market, has failed to do either, for a number of reasons. Financially, Disney is already hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Theaters in the U.S. either remain closed or permit only limited-capacity seating. In response, Disney released Mulan on its streaming service, Disney+, for $30 in addition to the normal subscription rate.
Financial issues aside, many people harbor anger and resentment toward China for the way it hid information during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The resulting racism and backlash against people of Chinese descent has made this a bad time to release a movie based on an old Chinese tale lauding the exploits of the Han during the Wei dynasty. Still, Disney was counting on the Chinese market to help balance the losses in North America. It cast Chinese actors and made other storyline adjustments in hopes of appealing to the Chinese audience. That didn’t work out quite as hoped.
Mulan has a huge PR problem
First, the lead actress Liu Yifei (pictured), a naturalized U.S. citizen, faced backlash from the U.S. over a tweet supporting the police during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. This led to calls from Hongkongers, Taiwanese, and other pro-democracy groups to boycott the movie. #BoycottMulan picked up some traction in the U.S.
Second, Disney thanked the governing authorities who have overseen the interment of over a million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, particularly in Turpan where parts of Mulan was filmed. In order to film a movie in China, one must get permission from the government. It is then customary to thank the governing bodies in the region for allowing the production company to film there.
Turpan is a a majority Uyghur city in Xinjiang, which features several “vocational training schools” where Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities are interned. These vocational training schools have been likened to concentration camps because people are taken there without due process of law and are subject to abuses. The credits thank several propaganda departments in Xinjiang as well as the public security bureau in Turpan.
Documents leaked in 2019 showed the extent to which the CCP exerts control over minority groups in Xinjiang and several sources call its treatment of the Uyghurs nothing short of genocide. Ziba Murat, a Uyghur American whose mother has been missing for two years (likely taken to one of the Xinjiang internment camps) wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post:
I am a proud Uighur American, and I understand something that all the money in the world can’t buy: the value of freedom. Is it too much to ask that Disney not support the ideology that has likely made my mother a slave and a prisoner in the modern age?
The words that scrolled across the credits of the film thanking the perpetrators of genocide — the ones who may have enslaved my mother — are shocking. It is appalling that the same minds that create iconic worlds with heroes and villains do not consider the morality of the stories they sell in the real world.Ziba Murat, “My Mother May Be a Victim of China’s Concentration Camps. Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Is a Whitewash” at Washington Post (September 10, 2020)
In response to the negative press elsewhere, the Cyberspace Administration of China banned any reporting on Mulan from Chinese media outlets. Additionally, Mulan was blocked on WeChat. Mulan received 4.7 out of 10 on Douban, China’s most popular movie-ranking website. All of this means, that after all of Disney’s efforts to appeal to a Chinese audience, Mulan will not do as well as expected even in China’s box office.
Accusations of Ethnocentrism
Several commentators have pointed out that Mulan is ethnocentric. Some of the issues may be new to those who are not familiar with the history and culture of China and East Asia generally but I found one article by fantasy and science-fiction author Jeannette Ng helpful for navigating the issues.
Ng points out that the problem isn’t the lack of “Chinese-ness” or that the writers were white. Looking at past adaptations of the Mulan story, Disney’s adaptation fits the mold. The problem, Ng says, is that Mulan is “peddling China’s own toxic nationalist myths.” Specifically, the movie’s pro-Han ethnocentrism contributes to the larger problem of the movie being filmed in Xinjiang:
That Mulan fights to defend what is now Xinjiang, filmed in Xinjiang, from Islamic-coded invaders who have been invited in by a conquered colonial subject is not a neutral story. Whether or not the half dozen white scribes of the film intended it or not, they have written something that fits very neatly in with current propaganda.Jeannette Ng, “Beyond authenticity: the spectre of Han hegemony” at Medium
Ng also notes in an article in Quartz, co-authored with Amanda Shendruk, that the villain is changed from Shan Yu in the animated film to Bori Khan in the live-action remake. She notes, “The distinctly non-Han, widely-used Muslim name plays up the film’s underlying Han Chinese nationalism.”
Here’s the earlier animated version (1998):
This switch isn’t unique to Mulan. China does not allow Han Chinese people to be cast as villains or even to be portrayed as weak or beat up by a foreigner. Mission Impossible 3 (2006) had a scene in which a Chinese henchman was killed by the main character, played by Tom Cruise. The movie also had a scene showing underwear hanging from a clothesline in Shanghai. Both scenes were cut from the Chinese version.
Additionally, Chinese censors want Hollywood films to present a unified China that does not treat Tibet or Taiwan as separate locations. Disney angered the Chinese government in 1997 with the release of Kundun, a film about the life of the fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama. Brad Pitt and the movie company, Columbia TriStar, were banned from China for several years for the 1997 movie Seven Years in Tibet. Also in 1997, Red Corner, an MGM movie starring Richard Gere resulted in a ban. Gere’s activism for the Tibetan people has not only led to a lifetime ban from China but he has been cast in fewer movie roles because China will not approve a movie with him in it.
Some changes may not immediately stand out. Tom Cruise’s famous bomber jacket in the Top Gun sequel (2020) was changed because it had small pins depicting Japanese and Taiwanese flags, something that would not fly with Chinese censors. And the 2012 remake of Red Dawn underwent extensive revisions to change the antagonists from Chinese to North Korean.
COVID-19 and World War Z
In 2013 Paramount Studios changed the dialogue in the movie World War Z, starring Brad Pitt so that the virus that caused the zombie apocalypse was not shown as starting in China. An executive at Paramount said the change would enable the movie to get approval for showing in China. He didn’t think it was a big deal. But, the origin of the zombie virus is important to the story. The movie is based on a book by Max Brooks (cover pictured), and Brooks says in an op-ed in the Washington Post that he intentionally wrote that the virus originated in China:
I needed an authoritarian regime with strong control over the press. Smothering public awareness would give my plague time to spread, first along the local population, then into other nations.Max Brooks, “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing” at PEN America Report
Brooks modeled World War Z after the SARS outbreak in 2003 in which the Chinese government suppressed media coverage, allowing the outbreak to spread. As Brooks noted in his op-ed, including China as the epicenter of the virus meant his book was not distributed in China. So removing the virus’s origin in the film changed the author’s intent.
Businesses Decisions Are Not Neutral
Mulan is just one example of the way that businesses can no longer tap into the Chinese market while remaining aloof from the values of the Chinese Communist Party. Some business owners have lamented that there are no true private businesses in China because businesses must be approved by the government, adhere to governmental regulations, and work with the government if asked to:
Disney’s lack of engagement presumably made sense from a business perspective, allowing them to refrain from alienating one or more potential audiences for the movie. Even so, the studio’s public silence—in connection to a movie that centers around one woman’s courage to fly in the face of a restrictive society, no less—further enabled Beijing to utilize the studio’s movie as a tool of antidemocratic propaganda without pushback.”Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher, “China’s Communists to Private Businesses: You Heed Us, We’ll Help You” at New York Times (September 17, 2020)
PEN America provides an extensive report on China’s censorship of art and film. After Sony Pictures’ emails were leaked, it became evident how often they edited content to appeal to the censors. Furthermore, certain film genres tend to not pass China’s censors, such as time-travel movies and movies with ghosts (although Harry Potter and Disney’s Coco have made it to Chinese markets).
And then there are the topics that are not allowed, sometimes referred to as the 3T’s and 2C’s: Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet, Cults (e.g., Falun Gong), and Criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Added to that list are Xinjiang (as evidenced by the media ban on Mulan) and tension over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The U.S. government, which may ban TikTok and WeChat for national security reasons if a deal is not made by September 20, is not alone in finding the general situation increasingly untenable. India has banned over fifty Chinese apps, including TikTok.
At some point, movie producers will have to decide whether they side with China or not. To many people, Disney’s silence regarding the controversies surrounding Mulan shows that Hollywood is at that crossroads now.
Note: The image of Liu YiFei is CC BY-SA 2.5, September 10, 2016
You may also find these articles by Heather Zeiger on doing business in and with China of interest:
How business in China becomes ethically expensive. Hong Kong raises the cost of “rights and freedoms” rhetoric steeply. Many advocates are bowing out.
The unadvertised cost of doing business with China. It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules.