Attentive moviegoers who went to see Disney’s reimagined Mulan last week made an unpleasant discovery during the end credits, namely that the corporation thanked several government entities in Xinjiang, home to the Uighur minority that the Chinese government has been systematically repressing for years. Some of the entities named in Mulan’s final credits are active participants in what several experts have called a cultural genocide.
How Beijing lures large movie studios
Disney’s pandering to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is by no means a new phenomenon. Companies based in democracies with rule of law and free-market jurisdictions have for decades made significant compromises to ensure continued access to over a billion Chinese consumers. Chinese authorities have consistently encouraged this attitude, highlighting how much corporations stood to gain from this huge market and, conversely, how much they stood to lose from displeasing the wardens of said market. Case in point, as the Mulan controversy was gaining traction over the past couple of days, Chinese state-media CGTN ran the unambiguous piece: “China is Hollywood’s light of hope in the East.”
Hollywood is one of the CCP’s main targets when it comes to enticing foreign companies that will then come to rely on the Chinese market. Indeed, Chinese authorities have long understood that having major movie studios on their side serves a twin objective: suppressing negative portrayals of their policies and, conversely, promoting positive depictions of the Chinese government. Beijing has succeeded on both fronts. Matt Schrader explains that, since the late 1990s, “no major American studio films have addressed sensitive subjects such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, or portrayed China in a negative light.” Conversely, several movies made in the 2010s “have positively portrayed the Chinese government or Sino-American cooperation.”
How Beijing uses movie studios’ dependence on its market to whitewash its repressive policies is on full display with Mulan. To explain the outrage, Western media outlets have drawn attention to the mass internment camps, oppressive surveillance, and “demographic genocide” happening in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the CCP nationalist tabloid Global Times tweeted that the movie greatly benefited Disney’s finances, and it published a piece deploring the “political hijacking” of the release. Even more striking, the spokesperson for the Chinese consulate in Istanbul tweeted that “the fact that [Mulan] was able to shoot in Xinjiang made it clear that the area was open and safe.” This last statement demonstrates how foreign corporations lured by China’s market end up playing into Beijing’s propaganda.
What can democracies do?
However, this situation is far from inevitable. Democracies simply must stand up for their values and create legal constraints that change the risk calculus for corporations like Disney. Since Mulan was shot in Xinjiang, two sets of restrictions have come into force. The first are sanctions put in place in July 2020 by the U.S. Treasury Department, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The second are restrictions resulting from the addition of several Chinese companies and local government entities on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List. One of the bodies thanked by Disney in the movie’s end credits, the Turpan Municipal Public Security Bureau, is a sub-component of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The Turpan Municipal Public Security Bureau and the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau are targets of both sets of restrictions. Moving forward, sanctions against propaganda departments and public security bureaus in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet could dissuade major film studios from partnering with those government and CCP sub-entities for future film productions.
To increase the effectiveness of these sanctions, a permanent technical-level sanctions working group that can coordinate China-related human rights sanctions regimes between government departments and agencies in Australia, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom should be created. Movie studios in film markets across the Anglosphere and Europe are just as likely to be co-opted by the CCP’s propaganda as their U.S. counterparts. The EU should finish the work it has already started on an EU global human rights sanctions mechanism. The United Kingdom can use its 2020 Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations to deter its entertainment industry from playing into Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions. Canada should pass legislation that can build upon the success of the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act by authorizing the sanctioning of foreign government entities involved in human rights abuses. Australia should continue progress on its version of the Magnitsky Act, and New Zealand officials should weigh the options of creating similar legislation.
However, sanctions are not a be-all-end-all solution. There will always be bad actors who do not appear on sanctions lists. While the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau is now sanctioned, other problematic bodies, such as the CCP’s many propaganda departments in Xinjiang—which is euphemistically translated to “publicity” departments in Mulan’s final credits—are not included in sanctions lists even though they actively produce disinformation around the ongoing repression of Uighurs. Besides, sanctions cannot address the more insidious consequences of Hollywood’s reliance on the Chinese market, such as the impossibility of getting a large project critical of Beijing off the ground.
Disney’s pandering to the CCP’s demands has alienated many moviegoers in the West. But, despite the company’s efforts to woo Chinese authorities, Mulan’s success in China is far from certain, “with bad press and poor reviews from Chinese audiences who have watched the movie online overseas” and accusations of “being bland and mishandling Chinese culture,” according to the South China Morning Post. Additionally, the Global Times issued an ominous warning that “Hollywood will need reflect [sic] on its understanding of Eastern culture” should the movie underperform. And the controversy surrounding its release has led Beijing to prohibit Chinese media from covering Mulan, depriving the movie of much-needed publicity. Everything points to Beijing’s censorship becoming stricter by the day. Given the shrinking creative space afforded to them by an authoritarian regime, companies like Disney may find it more profitable to focus on producing content that resonates with the average moviegoer rather than with the CCP’s Propaganda Department in Xinjiang.