Just in time for Labor Day weekend, Disney released its live-action version of “Mulan” through Disney Plus. Watching the film costs $30 plus the $6.99 monthly subscription fee. I didn’t take the bait, and I hope you will boycott the movie as well.
I have no objection to the historical origin of “Mulan,” a story about a young Chinese heroine who poses as a man to fight a war on behalf of her ailing father. As a little girl from China, my mother told me the story many times. I even give partial credit to Mulan’s story for inspiring me to leave my family at a young age to forge a different and better future.
I loved Disney’s 1998 animated version of “Mulan.” It successfully incorporated Chinese cultural elements while presenting a story that has universal appeal — a young woman’s journey of self-discovery and transformation. I also fell in love with the talented cast, which includes Ming-Na Wen and Eddie Murphy. I always wished I had a supportive dragon friend like Mushu. This time, however, I have some good reasons for boycotting the live-action version of “Mulan.”
First, while the basic storyline remains the same in this movie version, Disney has significantly altered the emphasis of Mulan’s story, from a universal value of self-determination to fidelity to family, and more importantly, unwavering loyalty to the state.
It’s crucial to note that the 1998 animation version of “Mulan” was a worldwide hit — except in China. Beijing initially barred Disney from releasing the animated film within its borders out of spite for another Disney venture, “Kundun,” the 1997 film that told the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. Even though the Dalai Lama gave up on demanding Tibet’s independence from China a long time ago, Beijing labeled him a “traitor” and a “separatist.”
Beijing was also worried about the universal message of self-determination in the animated version of “Mulan,” in fear that people who believe in personal freedom would ultimately demand democracy — the last thing the Chinese Communist Party would allow to take place in China.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “to avoid controversy and guarantee a China release” for the live-action “Mulan,” Disney “shared the script with Chinese authorities while consulting with local advisers.” Not surprisingly, the live-action “Mulan” emphasizes loyalty above all, something the CCP, especially its leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping, has demanded from all Chinese people.
Since the state and the CCP are synonymous in Communist China, loyalty to the state is no different from being loyal to the CCP. Absolute loyalty in China is defined as doing whatever the CCP demands of you and never questioning nor disobeying any orders from the CCP. Indeed, if it’s deemed necessary, one should be ready to sacrifice oneself for the CCP.
The live-action “Mulan” no longer upholds the universal appeal established by its predecessor but is now purely a product for Chinese consumption. This sad reality is reflected in other changes between the animated and the live-action versions. For example, Mushu the dragon is eliminated. The fun and humor Mushu brought to the animated version is now replaced with repeated lectures on honor and loyalty to China.
The leading Chinese actress, Liu Yifei, received tremendous backlash last year when she posted her support for the crackdown on Hong Kong protestors harshly carried out by Hong Kong police. The hashtag #BoycottMulan quickly trended worldwide. This August, after Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow was arrested under the new national security law, many Hong Kongers and foreign media referred to Chow as the real Mulan, a not so subtle jab at Liu.
Over the weekend, people who streamed the live-action version of “Mulan” also noticed that in the credit section, Disney thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, including the “publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee.” The committee serves as the CCP’s propaganda department in the region and the public security bureau in Turpan, a city that is also home of several notorious internment camps for Uighur Muslims and other minorities. Relatedly, Disney has been criticized for being deliberately ignoring the CCP’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Sadly, we shouldn’t be too surprised at all of this. Disney has a long history of kowtowing to the Chinese government in its shameless pursuit of profit. When Disney’s then-CEO, Michael Eisner, visited China in 1998, he reportedly told the CCP leaders in a conversation about “Kundun,” “The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it…Here I want to apologize, and in the future, we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”
True to his word, since then, neither Disney nor any other major Hollywood studios have made any movies like “Kundun” (Disney) or “Seven Years in Tibet” (Columbia Pictures), movies that might “upset” their masters in Beijing who might cut off access to the world’s largest movie market, which is projected to reach $15.5 billion in box office revenue by 2023.
PEN America, an organization that defends and celebrates freedom of expression, recently criticized Disney and other major Hollywood studios for “increasingly making decisions about their films — the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings — based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.”
Disney’s fawning to the CCP goes beyond working with the Chinese government closely in movie-making. To open a $5.5 billion theme park in 2016 in Shanghai, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notes that Disney agreed to “give the Chinese government officials a role in management. Of the park’s full-time employees, 300 are active members of the Communist Party. They reportedly display hammer-and-sickle insignia at their desks and attend Party lectures at the facility during business hours.”
Last October, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, sent out a simple tweet stating, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” His tweet quickly drew criticisms from the Chinese government and Chinese nationalists. The Disney-owned ESPN banned its staff from discussing Chinese politics related to any coverage of Morey’s tweet. Since Disney cares more for profit than upholding American values, I don’t feel it deserves a penny from me.
Last but not least, I am concerned with the way ethnic minorities are being portrayed in “Mulan” and how it may reinforce the CCP’s ethnocentric view. When CCP leaders and many Chinese speak of Chinese culture and history, what they speak of is the culture and history of the Han, the dominating ethnic group that represents more than 90 percent of the Chinese population.
There are more than 50 other ethnic minority groups in China. Throughout history, Han Chinese have referred to all other ethnic groups such as Mongolians, the Manchus, and the Uighur Muslims as “barbaric foreigners.”
In the story of Mulan, the villains are the Huns, ancestors of today’s Mongolians. To be fair, this is not Disney’s fault. As the story of a Han heroine, it is unsurprisingly written from a Han point of view. As a corporation that takes pride in cultural appreciation, however, Disney should have known better.
Since the founding of Communist China in 1949, the Chinese government has pushed to “assimilate” other ethnic minorities into the Han’s social, economical, and political structures and culture, sometimes through coercion and force, all in the name of improving the lives of minorities for the better. The quest for assimilation has only accelerated under Xi through government-sanctioned migration of Hans to minority-concentrated areas, forced birth control of minority women, mass internment of Uighur Muslims and other minorities, in addition to compulsory Mandarin language education.
“Mulan” will be released at a time parents and students in inner Mongolia are protesting against a directive from Beijing requiring schools in Mongolia to begin teaching students politics, history, and literature in Mandarin, not Mongolian. The directive sets a three-year plan to phase out Mongolian-language teaching in schools entirely. Understandably, Mongolians see this directive as a push to erase their cultural and ethnic identity.
The Chinese authorities are also cracking down on Mongolian protests and arresting protestors with the assistance of facial recognition technology. As Hong Kong-based writer Jeannette Ng recently told The Guardian, the new version of “Mulan” essentially portrays “those people who are currently having their culture being destroyed as the bad guys whilst lionizing Han dominance and Chinese nationalism.” As such, this will reinforce the Chinese government’s ethnocentric approach.
For all these reasons, I have no regrets boycotting Disney’s live-action version of “Mulan,” the latest example of Communist China’s growing power over everything from geopolitics to arts and entertainment.