The opening fight scene in Disney’s new live-action film Mulan boasts an epic backdrop. Fearsome invaders gallop from red ochre sand dunes towards a walled garrison on the ancient Silk Road. The Chinese empire is under attack.

The location for the scene tells a different reality. Near the same dunes, there is another securely guarded fortress with high walls; an internment camp built by the ruling Chinese Communist party to lock up and “re-educate” people deemed a threat to China.

Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, had hoped to spend this week talking up its new blockbuster — the budget for Mulan, which launched in the US on Friday and opens in China this weekend, was $200m. But instead it has found itself at the centre of a controversy about China, human rights and the responsibility of multinational companies.

Some of the scenes were shot in Xinjiang, the region in the north-west of China where the government has built a massive network of “re-education” camps to intern more than 1m Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim peoples. The film’s credits thank four different propaganda offices in Xinjiang, as well as the public security bureau in the city of Turpan, which works closely with some of the camps.

The road from Urumqi, the provincial capital, to Shanshan county, where Mulan’s crew filmed, passes close to the Dabancheng camp, one of Xinjiang’s largest. According to satellite imagery, the sprawling facility appeared in the desert in April 2017. By August 2018, when Mulan started filming, it had grown into a huge complex surrounded by guard towers and razor-wire topped walls.

That same month, a UN expert described the whole of Xinjiang as a “no-rights zone” that “resembled a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy”.

Leaked government documents detailed how Uighurs were sent to camps for “growing a beard” or “having too many children”. After “graduating”, individuals are often transferred to industrial parks as involuntary factory labour, sometimes in locations across China.

The furore over Mulan is part of a growing focus on the links between international business and Xinjiang. As a result of the mass internment and coercive labour programmes that are a central part of the region’s economy, pressure is mounting on multinationals from campaigners and the US government to sever all ties with the region or risk complicity in rights abuses.

At a time when US policymakers are debating how far to decouple from the Chinese economy amid talk of a new cold war, multinationals in China are being pushed to make sure their operations are decoupled from Xinjiang.

A ‘vocational skills education centre’ in Xinjiang
A ‘vocational skills education centre’ in Xinjiang © Thomas Peter/Reuters

“Disney’s case shines the light on how entrenched and how entangled the connections to rights abuses can be,” says Allison Gill, senior cotton campaign co-ordinator for Global Labor Justice, International Labor Rights Forum.

Josh Hawley, US senator for Missouri, accused Disney of “[crossing] the line from complacency into complicity” and said that a failure to apologise for shooting scenes in Xinjiang was “reprehensible”.

Disney’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, told an investor conference on Thursday that the controversy had “generated a lot of issues for us”. While most of the film was shot in New Zealand, Disney also filmed in 20 locations in China “to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography” of the country, Ms McCarthy said. 

China is a hugely important market for the group. As well as merchandise and theme parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the group also has been trying to crack the China market for streaming.

“Making enemies [of Chinese partners] through the production of Mulan would not help advance that cause,” says Aynne Kokas, author of the book Hollywood Made in China and a scholar at the University of Virginia. “It’s interesting that they just decided to not address it, not to re-film, even as the human rights abuses became more visible.”

Exit calls

Pressure on companies has been building over the past year. The coalition to end Uighur forced labour, an initiative by advocacy groups, was launched last July that calls on “brands and retailers to exit the Uighur region at every level of their supply chain”.

The campaign has begun to gain traction in the apparel industry — given Xinjiang produces most of China’s supply of cotton. Clothing brands such as Lacoste, Adidas and Under Armour have pledged not to buy from Xinjiang and to guard against forced labour in their China supply chains.

The issue gained new momentum last month when the US sanctioned the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military organisation that operates like a branch of government and runs many of the region’s largest state-owned enterprises, producing about 30 per cent of China’s cotton.

Xinjiang produces nearly 90 per cent of China’s cotton
Xinjiang produces nearly 90 per cent of China’s cotton © AFP/Getty

But many other international companies have been much slower to extricate themselves from Xinjiang, especially beyond the apparel industry. Their response has been partly a result of the secrecy of the internment programme, the difficulties in conducting audits and the sensitivities of dealing with Chinese authorities, businesses and campaigners say.

The sheer scale of the programme, and the central role Xinjiang plays in multiple supply chains, exposes multinational corporations in China across multiple industries. “The problem is so pervasive, both the rights abuses and the linkages to companies and business operations, so it’s not going away any time soon,” says Ms Gill, the cotton campaigner.

Xinjiang, a sixth of China’s total landmass that spans grasslands and mountains in the north to shrubland and desert to the south, is a central piece of Beijing’s plan to expand overland trade routes with Central Asia as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The region produces nearly 90 per cent of China’s cotton, its coal reserves make up about 40 per cent of the country’s total and the Tarim Basin in its north-west is one of the country’s largest oil and gas repositories. Xinjiang’s farmers are some of China’s leading producers of grapes, tomatoes and melons.

Xinjiang is also a leading supplier to factories across China of cheap workers — some of them coerced. A February report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank, found that suppliers of 82 global brands used involuntary labour transferred from Xinjiang to locations across China. Some 80,000 Uighurs were moved as part of the programme between 2017 and 2019.

Box office logic

The backlash over Mulan underlines the delicate political choices facing Hollywood film studios that now rely heavily on the Chinese market for movie ticket sales.

Critics point to a growing number of editorial choices by Hollywood directors apparently motivated by a desire to curry favour with Communist party officials and secure a rare spot in the strictly censored Chinese market.

PEN America, a non-profit group that advocates for freedom of expression, published a report in August that said US film studios were compromising on free expression, engaging in self-censorship and “in some instances directly inviting Chinese government censors on to their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires”.

Disney is a case in point about the political sensitivities. In the late 1990s, Disney’s relationship with the Communist party soured after the company released Kundun, a Martin Scorsese film about Chinese occupation of Tibet. China retaliated by banning Disney films in the country. (Mr Scorsese was also barred from entering China.)

Since then the entertainment group has spent the past two decades courting China. In a 1998 meeting with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, then chief executive Michael Eisner apologised for Kundun. “This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr Eisner said during the meeting.

After years of painstaking negotiations, Disney in 2008 struck a deal to build a $5.5bn Shanghai theme park, staking a flag for the all-American brand in China to much fanfare.

China’s president Xi Jinping, right, meets Bob Iger, then Disney chief executive, in 2016
China’s president Xi Jinping, right, meets Bob Iger, then Disney chief executive, in 2016 © Kim Kyung-Hoon/AFP/Getty

Bob Iger, chief executive from 2005 until earlier this year and now chairman, described the park’s opening as the “greatest opportunity the company has had since Walt Disney himself bought land in central Florida”. Disney agreed to split ownership of the park with Chinese state-controlled Shanghai Shendi Group, among other concessions, establishing a conciliatory tone to its relationship with the Chinese government that has stuck.

When remaking Mulan, which was first released as a cartoon in 1998, Disney went to great lengths to produce a film that would be received well by Chinese authorities and audiences. Producers spent months researching Chinese history and enlisted a largely Chinese cast, hiring stars such as Jet Li, Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen.

“You have to throw out some of the rules that you would rely on in the US. You have to remember that behind every [Chinese] business person, there is a political counterpart to some extent,” says the chief executive of a major global cinema company. “You can get in a lot of trouble if you don’t understand the nuances.”

China’s film industry is on the verge of toppling the US as the world’s number one film market by box office revenue. But it remains unclear whether the backlash from the US will impact sales in the region. On the day of its debut, Mulan made only $6m in sales in Chinese cinemas as of Friday evening, according to ticketing platform Maoyan — a slow start for a film Disney had hoped would become a smash hit in the country. Before Mulan’s premiere in Chinese cinemas, the film had only 4.7 points out of 10 on, a popular cultural criticism website.

One viewer, Li Junze, a 36-year-old film lover who runs an antique bookstore in Dandong city, says he prefers Disney’s 1998 cartoon version. “Despite being all Chinese faces, it still feels so American. I don’t think westerners know how to tell Chinese stories,” he says.

Disney has courted China after their relationship soured in the 1990s following Disney’s release of Kundun, a film about Chinese occupation of Tibet
Xi Jinping, right, and Bob Iger. Disney has courted China after their relationship soured in the 1990s following Disney’s release of ‘Kundun’, a film about Chinese occupation of Tibet © Kim Kyung-Hoon/AFP/Getty

With the cinema business still crippled in much of the world, it will be difficult to turn a profit. The company is selling Mulan online for $30 in regions such as the US and UK.

Critics also say the film’s storyline goes out of its way to bolster the Communist party’s official version of Chinese history. “There is this magnification of the narrative that the only way for there to be a civilised China is to quash the western rebellion,” says Ms Kokas, the media scholar at University of Virginia.

Such a decision to frame Mulan’s fight against invaders as part of the Communist party’s preferred historical narrative is “something that we would commonly see in a Chinese film or in Chinese political discourse, but it’s very bizarre to see that in a US film.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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