Disney’s decision to film parts of “Mulan” in Xinjiang has been widely discussed on social media this week by academics and human rights activists, with some calling for a boycott.
“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,” Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Xinjiang policy, wrote on Twitter.
Shawn Zhang, a Canada-based researcher, noted Monday that the timeline of the “Mulan” production coincided with the peak of the Xinjiang “reeducation” campaign. He calculated that the crew would have passed seven of the detention centers while driving from the Turpan airport to the filming site in the desert.
It was not clear how the Turpan Public Security Bureau contributed to the movie production. Disney did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, nor did Xinjiang’s propaganda department or the Turpan Public Security Bureau.
It’s the second political controversy to hit “Mulan,” which was released Friday on Disney Plus. After its lead actress, Liu Yifei, voiced support last year for Hong Kong police against pro-democracy protesters, activists in Hong Kong called for a boycott of the film.
After its online release, “Mulan” is rolling out this month in theaters across Asia, with mixed feedback from early viewers. While some praised the martial arts scenes, others criticized the mix of Western and Chinese aesthetics as inauthentic.
The political backlash over “Mulan” reflects a shift in the landscape for multinationals operating in China. Western consumers used to be indifferent enough to Chinese politics that Western executives did not have to factor it into their business plans — especially for something as seemingly anodyne as a children’s film reboot.
The trade war with the United States has contributed to this shift, as have China’s heavy-handed crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which have struck a nerve with Western consumers. In Xinjiang, a Chinese anti-extremism campaign over the past three years has swept an estimated 1 million Uighurs and other minorities into high-security detention compounds. Former detainees have alleged they were subject to torture.
In a briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian disputed critics’ characterization of the Xinjiang facilities, describing them as vocational education and training centers. “Certain anti-China forces abroad are smearing and attacking China’s Xinjiang policy,” he said.
It’s only this year that a number of American businesses have announced they are cutting ties with the region, as U.S. sanctions have taken effect.
The National Basketball Association confirmed in July that it was no longer running a sports program in Xinjiang, after drawing criticism over the program for years.
Xinjiang’s cotton, a major export, came under serious U.S. pressure at the end of July, when the Trump administration sanctioned its largest grower, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Major U.S. fashion brands have until the end of the month to untangle their supply chains from the XPCC.
The Trump administration is considering a broader ban on Xinjiang cotton this week, the New York Times reported.