By Ignacio Diaz Pascual
Back in August 2019, the star of Disney’s upcoming Mulan remake, Liu Yifei, caused a media firestorm. At a time when Hong Kong’s police force were violently cracking down against anti-government protestors, she reposted a viral statement on Weibo, the government-regulated Chinese social media platform, which read, “I also support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now.”
In response, pro-democracy activists on Twitter called to “#BoycottMulan”, and the hashtag was soon trending worldwide. Many pointed out the irony of an actress supporting authoritarian police brutality while playing a fearless heroine in Mulan that fights against oppression in its rawest form. Disney refused to be drawn into the debate, and Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, made his position clear: “to take a position that could harm our company… would be a big mistake.”
Undeterred, Disney released Mulan on September 4 on its streaming service Disney+, charging a $30 fee for subscribers. Yet outrage over the production grew again when viewers noticed in the post-film credits that Disney had thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, the region of China known for its “re-education” camps, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is subjecting over a million Uighur Muslims to involuntary detention, political indoctrination and even torture. Disney specifically thanked the Public Security Bureau in the region of Turpan, where there are at least 10 of these “re-education” camps alone. Disney’s silence was again deafening, with CFO Christine McCarthy refusing to apologize and noting only that the scandal had “generated a lot of issues for us.”
Sadly, this should come as no surprise. Despite Disney’s self-made image as a progressive, family-oriented business, the company has a long history of kowtowing to the Chinese government to maximize their profit margins. In response to the indignation of the CCP at the 1997 Disney production Kundun, which told the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Disney’s CEO at-the-time, Michael Eisner, apologized profusely to CCP leaders and stated “in the future, we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.” In all Disney films made in China since, including the recent Mulan, the film studio has extensively consulted with Chinese government officials prior to publication, to ensure that China is portrayed in a positive light.
Unfortunately, Disney’s pandering to China goes far beyond just movie-making. The $5.5 billion Disneyland Shanghai resort, for example, was only made possible by extensive concessions to the CCP. In a bid to woo President Xi, Bob Iger pledged the park would “introduce more about China to the world”, and the Chinese government was given a 57% stake in the resort. Disney’s other overseas resorts are exclusively owned by private corporations, and the government’s influence in the Shanghai park siphons profits away from private businesses and into the pockets of the CCP. Chinese government officials were even given management roles – in fact, of the park’s 11,000 full-time employees, 300 are active Communist Party members, attending Party lectures at the resort during business hours.
The relationship between Disney and the CCP is so friendly that the company enjoys special economic protections. In 2015, the Chinese government vowed to take “special action” to exclusively stamp out counterfeit Disney products in China that infringed on the company’s trademarks, a highly unusual maneuver that has historically been reserved for state-owned enterprises and broad industries.
The reasons why Disney continues to fawn over the Chinese government couldn’t be more clear. China has the second biggest film business in the world, and due to the government’s insistence on a state-owned economy, multinational corporations that want to infiltrate the lucrative market have to maintain good relations with the CCP. Disney is far from the only American business guilty of this – the NBA, for example , has faced staunch criticism for its silencing of coaches or players who speak out against China’s human rights abuses.
Yet as China’s government shows no signs of halting its authoritarian trail, Disney and other American businesses must decide when they will stop choosing profits over civil liberties. In many ways, Disney is the “quintessential” American company, ostensibly rooted in American values like free thought, tolerance of diversity and the pursuit of happiness. Yet by continuing to acquiesce to the CCP, Disney is implicitly (perhaps even explicitly) condoning its deplorable and decisively anti-American actions. It is giving China billions in revenue, allowing its government to gain influence across the globe and moving the world closer to one where Chinese methods of repression are not intolerable exceptions, but every-day occurrences. If Disney really wants to epitomise “the American way”, it must condemn the same violations of liberties abroad as it would at home. But actions speak louder than words, and Disney has a duty, like we all do, to act toward the change it wants to see in the world.
Title Image Credit: shanghaidisneylandresort.com