“There is no so-called reeducation camp in Xinjiang,” said the foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, when directly asked about Disney shooting parts of its new movie Mulan in Xinjiang. To any person who is a fan of the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, the structure of this sentence may seem very familiar. “There is no war in Ba Sing Se…”
Disney is not new to scandals and other issues with cultural sensitivity. There are multiple previous cases that can be thought of on the fly, like the Siamese cat in The Aristocats using chopsticks to play the piano, the song “What Makes the Red Man Red” in Peter Pan, and the entire movie Song of the South. Yet, no one expected that the new live action film Mulan would be another feather in their controversial cap. Disney attempted to stay as close as possible to the original Chinese folktale, “The Ballad of Mulan,” and even made sure that it had a completely Asian cast for the movie. This movie was supposed to be a symbol of how diverse, inclusive, and “woke” the Disney company has become.
But that is not the whole story. While Disney did film the movie in multiple locations, one of the locations was Xinjiang. Xinjiang is a northwestern province of China that is the home to Muslim Uighur people. This group is distinctly different from the predominate ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese. Many forms of originality or differences in China are viewed as a threat needing to be neutralized by the government. That is why Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang face mass surveillance, unlawful arrest and the risk of being sent to what the Chinese government has labelled “vocational education and training centers.” These sites are, in fact, reeducation and forced labor camps where Uighurs have faced forced sterilization, brainwashing, family separation and, more recently, poor treatment of the novel coronavirus. This is not new information, and many journalists and human rights activists have been trying to shed more light on what exactly takes place in these camps.
The problem that many people have with Mulan is the knowledge that Disney is attempting to profit from a movie which was knowingly shot in a place with massive human rights violations. Out of all of the places in the world the movie could have been filmed, Xinjiang was not an acceptable choice. Disney did not even use their platform to bring to light the violence that Uighurs face, instead thanking the propaganda departments in Xinjiang for allowing them to shoot there.
So, Disney, if you want to figure out why so many people are outraged by Mulan, go take an Introduction to Ethics class.