The Disney film whipping up a desert storm

Action heroine: Liu Yifei moved to the US aged 10. Her father is a Chinese diplomat. © Walt Disney

Should entertainers steer clear of politics? The makers of Mulan hope it will draw audiences back to cinemas. But critics say that it and its star are endorsing a brutal Chinese regime.

The scenes from the trailer are thrilling. Horsemen charge across a plain, their banners flying; catapults hurl flaming missiles; dark figures race across rooftops; a beautiful girl draws her sword. Mulan’s online release last weekend met with ecstatic tweets: “It’s so epic!” said one. “Visually stunning,” said another. But soon a very different message was trending: “#BoycottMulan.”

What had raised Twitter users’ hackles was something many viewers had not even noticed: the credits right at the end of the film. Among those thanked were eight Chinese government departments, including the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security and "the publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uighur Autonomy Region Committee".

Xinjiang is an area of north-west China where much of Mulan was filmed; Turpan is one of its main cities. But Xinjiang is also the focus of Beijing’s heavily criticised repressive measures against the Uighur people.

It is thought that over a million have been sent to detention camps for harsh “re-education” so that they respect Communist Party doctrine instead of their traditional Muslim beliefs. Children have been taken away from their parents, and women forcibly sterilised. The process has been described as genocide – and the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security has played a key part. It even built the first of the camps.

Local “publicity departments”, meanwhile, are accused of spreading propaganda to disguise the government’s behaviour. They have claimed that the Uighurs live in “peace and harmony” and that the camps do not exist.

Critics allege that scenes for Mulan were filmed in the Xinjiang desert at the height of the re-education campaign. They add that the production team would have passed seven of the camps on their journey from the airport. “Imagine parts of a global blockbuster being filmed in the vicinity of minority villages, when [government] work teams are going door to door, asking questions, followed by mass internment by police,” wrote Shawn Zhang, an expert on the region.

The film first gave rise to controversy several months ago when its Chinese-born American star, Liu Yifei, voiced support for the Hong Kong police as they cracked down on pro-democracy protestors. Its content, too, is controversial.

Mulan is based on a Mongolian legend about a girl who joins the army disguised as a young man to save her elderly father from doing military service. In the Disney version, however, Mulan is Han Chinese – a member of the ethnic group that makes up 92% of the country’s population.

The Mongolians, like the Uighurs, complain of repression by the Han majority. Last week saw a wave of protests against a new education policy that calls for schools to teach fewer lessons in Mongolian and more in Mandarin. Having their legends hijacked by the Han arguably adds insult to injury.

Should entertainers steer clear of politics?

No business – or show business

Some say, yes. For actors and film-makers to get involved in politics is an abuse of their popularity: Liu Yifei’s suggestion that her character would have supported the Hong Kong police is a prime example. And in practical terms it is very unwise, since many potential fans are likely to be alienated. It would have been far better to film Mulan’s desert scenes in another country.

Others argue that entertainers are as entitled to their views as anyone else. Politics permeate all our lives, and if actors turned down every film with a political element they would starve. In any case, when dealing with a country like China it is impossible to remain neutral. There is even speculation that Liu Yifei’s political tweets were designed to save her Chinese family from persecution.

You Decide

  1. Is making a new version of a classic film unimaginative and disrespectful?
  2. Can a film change political views more effectively than a speech or newspaper article?

Activities

  1. Watch the trailer for Mulan and paint one of the scenes or characters from the film.
  2. Imagine you are a member of the Mulan team filming in Xinjiang and have just learnt that there is a detention camp nearby. Write a diary entry about your discovery.

Some People Say...

“I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.”

Walt Disney (1901-1966), film producer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Disney is very anxious to stay on the right side of the authorities in Beijing. It wants access to China’s huge film-going population, and films can only be released there with government approval. The cartoon version of Mulan ran into problems in China in 1997 because Disney had backed Kundun, a film sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. Mulan was only released after Disney agreed to distribute two Chinese feature films in the West and build a theme park in Hong Kong.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is whether entertainers should be dictated to by politicians. The singer Paul Simon caused controversy when he recorded part of his album Graceland in South Africa during the apartheid era, despite a cultural boycott of the country backed by the UN. Simon argued that the black musicians there were happy to work with him, and that artists were more important than politicians – so they should be allowed to make up their own minds.

Word Watch

Hackles
A long feather or group of feathers on a bird’s neck or the hairs on a dog’s back that rise when it is angry or frightened.
Municipal
A municipality is a town or district that has its own government.
Autonomy
Freedom or self-government. In a totalitarian state, however, the term cannot be taken at face value: people in Xinjiang still have to obey the government in Beijing.
Sterilised
Sterilisation is surgery that prevents a human or animal from producing offspring.
Vicinity
Surrounding area. It comes from a Latin word meaning “neighbour”.
Internment
Imprisonment without trial. During the Second World War the US interned many people of Japanese origin, thinking that they might be sympathetic to the enemy.
Mongolian
Although Mongolia is an independent country to the north of China with a population of over three million, there are twice as many ethnically Mongolian people living in China itself.
Permeate
Spread through something or be present throughout it. In science, a permeable substance is one that a liquid or gas can go through.

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