Disney did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business to its media inquiry line, and to US press officers about the film and the credits. It’s not clear how much of “Mulan” may have been shot in Xinjiang, though people who worked on the movie have said on social media and in interviews that they scouted and filmed locations there.
Beijing has long defended the crackdown in Xinjiang as necessary to tackle extremism and terrorism, and said it is in line with Chinese law and international practice, calling accusations of mass detentions a “groundless lie” and “sensational rumor.” A spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry on Tuesday reiterated its defense of what it calls its Xinjiang “vocational skills education and training centers.” CNN Business has reached out to the Xinjiang government and Turpan’s tourism bureau, but Turpan’s Public Security bureau could not be reached for comment.
“There are no so-called concentration camps in Xinjiang,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “The establishment of vocational skills education and training centers in Xinjiang in accordance with the law is a useful attempt and active exploration for preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalization.”
But the connections between Xinjiang and “Mulan” have ignited widespread criticism on social media since its release Friday on Disney+, the company’s streaming service. Human rights advocates are now calling on Disney to make public any agreements with the Chinese government over filming in the region.
A film plagued by setbacks
Disney hoped that “Mulan” would be a major success at the lucrative Chinese box office, now the second-largest in the world. The company spoke last year about its dedication to making the film culturally accurate — remarks that were reported in Chinese state media.
“We spent a lot of time in the beginning with scholars, experts and people from the region. And we spent a great deal of time in China,” said Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, at a Disney expo event last year, reported the state-run news agency Xinhua. Bailey added that the studio “not only has a Chinese cast but also brought in a Chinese producer to make the movie with them,” the outlet noted.
In August 2019, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong called for a boycott of “Mulan” after the lead actor expressed support for Hong Kong police on her social media account.
And it’s not even clear that the film will win over Chinese audiences, who were already chilly toward the original animated version because of its westernized flair and unfaithful retelling of the original legend.
Calls for transparency
Allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang stretch back years.
In recent years, the Xinjiang government has allegedly undertaken a large campaign to imprison and re-educate Muslim minorities in the region, especially the large Uyghur population.
Adrian Zenz, a leading academic at the Victims of Communism Foundation who has helped break major stories from Xinjiang, said that the earliest documented case of a re-education center in the region was in Turpan in 2013.
Zenz said that while it was possible Disney didn’t know about the growing number of detention centers set up across Xinjiang, the widespread oppression in the region was impossible to miss.
“There were police stations and checkpoints all over Xinjiang by late 2016, not to be missed,” he said.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao dismissed Zenz’s claims and accused him of making a living “through making Xinjiang-related rumors and slandering China.” He also claimed there had been no cases of violence or terrorism in Xinjiang for “more than three consecutive years.”
And Asia Society fellow Stone Fish said that many companies were accustomed to making small concessions to the ruling Communist Party to access the Chinese market.
“Studios feel like they need to make these compromises to be in Beijing, but you can slightly censor your movies to get into the Chinese market, you can bring Chinese movies that shouldn’t be in the States because of poor quality or because of propaganda elements into the States. And you can do that and maintain your integrity, mostly intact,” he said.
“You don’t need to take these extra steps that Disney is taking, and they’re rightly getting excoriated for it.”