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; dark figures race across rooftops; a beautiful girl draws her sword. Mulan’s 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.”

The objections were to the credits shown at the end of the film. Among those thanked were eight Chinese government departments, including the "the publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uighur Autonomy Region Committee".

Xinjiang is an area of north-west China where much of Mulan was filmed, but it is also the focus of Beijing’s repressive measures against the Uighur people.

It is thought that over a million have been sent to detention camps for harsh “re-education”. Children have been taken away from their parents, and women forcibly sterilised. The process has been described as genocide.

Local “publicity departments” 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 campaign.

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.

Should entertainers steer clear of politics?

No business – or show business

Some say, yes. It is an abuse of their popularity: Liu Yifei’s support of the Hong Kong police is a prime example. And it would have been more sensible to film Mulan’s desert scenes in another country.

Others argue that politics permeate all our lives – including entertainers. Besides, 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?

Activities

  1. Watch the trailer for Mulan and paint one of the scenes or characters from the film.

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

Autonomy
Freedom or self-government. In a totalitarian state, however, the term cannot be taken at face value: people in Xinjiang still have to do what the government in Beijing tells them to.
Re-education
The purpose of the camps is to make the Uighur people accept the Communist Party doctrine instead of their traditional Muslim beliefs.
Sterilised
Sterilisation is surgery to make a person or animal unable to produce offspring.
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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