There is often a lot of excitement associated with releases of Disney films, and Mulan was no different. The long-awaited live action remake of Disney’s Mulan finally opened in the Mainland of China this weekend following a straight to streaming release on Disney+ in other countries earlier this month. Despite how anticipated Mulan was with many Disney fans, potential bad publicity was never far behind any promotion of the film. In 2017, an article pointed out that Disney’s choice of actress to play the titular role, American Chinese-born actress Liu Yifei, was at least at the time considered as one of China’s worst actresses according to Douban, a Chinese IMDb-style website.
In August 2019, another PR nightmare hit Mulan with Liu’s sharing of a post on Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter) supporting the Hong Kong Police Force, which has been accused of police brutality in the way they have been policing the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, resulting in netizens on social media calling for a boycott of Mulan using the hashtag #BoycottMulan. Protesters using the #BoycottMulan hashtag have been angered by silence on the part of Liu and Disney following criticisms of Liu’s post on Weibo.
Business Insider reported, citing data from SEMrush, that there were 19,236 tweets using the hashtag “#BoycottMulan” on Twitter from 1 September to 9 September, and searches for “Boycott Mulan” on Google increased by 1,900 per cent from 4 September, when Mulan was released on Disney+ streaming, to 5 September.
With the arrest of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting on 10 August 2020, the #BoycottMulan hashtag was accompanied by some people on Twitter calling Chow the “real Mulan”, using the film’s slogan of “loyal, brave, and true”, as well as Mulan’s saying of “I will bring honour to us all”, which has been featured in trailers for Mulan.
The PR nightmare for Disney did not end with #BoycottMulan being shared widely in relation to Liu’s support of the Hong Kong Police Force, but eagle-eyed netizens soon realised that the credits to the film included thanks to the “Publicity Department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee”, as well as the “Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security”, “Turpan Municipal Tourism Administration”, and “Turpan Municipal Culture Relics Bureau”. The #BoycottMulan movement soon included criticisms of Disney filming Mulan in the proximity mass human rights abuse against the Uyghur Muslims.
Turpan is a city in the East of China’s north-eastern Xinjiang region, which Uyghur Muslims call East Turkestan. Rahima Mahmut, the World Uyghur Congress‘ United Kingdom Director, told Eat News that at the time that Mulan was being filmed in 2018, concentration camps were being identified in Turpan, with accounts of mass arrests of Uyghur Muslims taking place. In November 2018, a Reuters published a special report titled Tracking China’s Muslim Gulag which featured a “re-education centre” in Turpan.
Ms Mahmut, who is in exile in the United Kingdom and have not been able to contact her family since the beginning of 2017, has expressed shock that Disney would work with, let alone specifically thank in the credits of Mulan, the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security, as “these are the same people who are responsible for rounding up and arresting people, raping women, forcibly sterilising people, removing women’s wombs – these are the people who are executing the state’s orders”.
“Everything in the camps are controlled by the Bureau of Public Security”, down to the doctors and nurses who are reportedly forced to carry out operations to forcibly sterilise Uyghur people, and forcibly removing the wombs of Uyghur women. A Uyghur doctor recently spoke to United Kingdom’s ITV of conducting around 500 to 600 operations on Uyghur women “including forced contraception, forced abortion, forced sterilisation and forced removal of wombs”, including an incident where a baby that was still moving whilst being “discarded into the rubbish”.
Whilst Ms Mahmut did not speculate as to why Disney chose to film Mulan in and around Turpan, she said that companies have a moral duty to look into whether they are directly or indirectly being linked to human rights abuses, adding that Disney’s decision-making process leading to filming in and around Turpan needs to be investigated: “They could have chosen to film elsewhere – why Turpan?”
Ms Mahmut has, on social media, asked people to consider boycotting Mulan, adding to Eat News, “Even if people want to watch Mulan and do not boycott the film, I hope that some of us calling for a boycott will raise awareness of what is going on in the region. The region is only beautiful because of its people.”
Despite what many perceive as Disney using Mulan to pander to the Mainland Chinese market, with the Chair and co-founder of NGO Hong Kong Watch calling the film “a Communist Party propaganda initiative” in an op-ed published by Hong Kong Free Press, the film is not being received very well by Mainland Chinese audiences. At the time of writing this piece, Mulan has a rating of 4.9/10 on Douban. Forbes reported that Mulan earned US$8.27 million on Saturday, an increase of 5 per cent from the US$7.9 million earned on Friday 11 September 2020, the on day which Mulan opened in Mainland China.