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Mulan: What Disney’s Movie Teaches Us About Xi Jinping’s China

The failure of the remake of the famous 1990s cartoon highlights several issues hidden under the carpet for too long.

In 2015, Disney had the great idea of making a film aimed at the Chinese market and at the same time designed to please the regime. Mulan’s remake seemed at the time an excellent idea to raise cash and at the same time to strengthen itself in the local market, which has always been considered a sort of Eldorado for many Western brands. But simply to set foot (or to remain) in this immense market, some minimum requirements must be met and above all, companies must not make the government nervous with useless trifles such as the existence of Tibet or human rights.

The removal of Tibet from the collective Hollywood consciousness

In the 1990s, Disney made Kundun, a film directed by Martin Scorsese about the life of the Dalai Lama. Chinese leaders turned against the film, and Disney CEO Michael Eisner himself had to travel to China to ask for forgiveness for making a film about Tibet and to negotiate a theme park in Shanghai. The film Seven Years in Tibet received a similar fate.

Again in 2016, Marvel (also owned by Disney) removed from the film Doctor Strange the character of a Tibetan sage, in the film replaced by Tilda Swinton, again in order not to break the fragile feelings of the Chinese government, which feels threatened by a superhero of paper.

The result of these setbacks is an excess of zeal towards the Chinese regime and the preventive self-censorship of the great Hollywood productions, which to reach the Chinese market, do not have any problems in putting a muzzle on their authors.

The genesis of a failure

From the earliest stages of the making of this film, Disney’s guiding light throughout Operation Mulan appeared to be to indulge and anticipate every wish of the Beijing government.

At the beginning were the unfortunate statements of the film’s protagonist Liu Yifei, who thanked the Hong Kong police for her role in crushing the pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong, causing the immediate boycott by activists and sympathizers around the world.

Like most of the film productions released in this period, the movie has had to face the crisis triggered by the COVID, which has emptied the theaters and is putting the health of the entire sector at risk. As early as 2003, SARS was among those responsible for the Hong Kong film crisis, which could no longer recover.

To get around the problem, Disney decided to rely on its new Disney + streaming platform, however requiring an additional financial effort, in addition to the cost of the subscription.

When the film was finally released, Disney’s eagerness to please the Chinese regime was finally revealed by thanking the authorities of the “autonomous” province of Xinjiang, where some scenes of the film were shot, the same authorities who rounded up and sent Uyghur citizens to concentration camps.

At this point, the film in the West was damaged by the choices made by Disney, choices dictated as we said earlier out of opportunism and to satisfy the wishes of Beijing.

Yesterday a circular from the Chinese government imposed silence around the film, guilty of having attracted further unwelcome criticism from the West.

The film has therefore not been banned in China but has been blacked out in the mainstream media, forever undermining the chances of recovering the investment and at the same time betraying the expectations of the Disney CEO who imagined diving into a sea of the renminbi.

The film also did not even receive positive reviews on the Douban aggregator, who with an average of 4.7 out of 10, decreed a negative verdict, thus nipping in the bud the possibility that the film could be saved thanks to word of mouth. The film was not particularly appreciated by the Chinese public for some changes made to the original plot, for the general flatness of the production, and the lack of historical coherence.

Mulan, however, comes out in 2020 and not in 2016, after the outbreak of the coronavirus, which originated in China, after the trade war with Trump, after the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and also after the creation of the unfortunate concentration camps in Xinjiang.

In this period, the American government has also targeted for security reasons several Chinese companies, starting with Huawei to get to Tiktok, companies that have managed to spread to the West, but which have now been crippled by US intervention. The first was banned from competitions for the construction of 5g networks in practically the entire West and was prevented from buying the American chips, essential for the creation of smartphones, and the second instead is seen as a Trojan horse for spy on citizens of half the world.

Since the opening of the Chinese market in the 1990s, China has been stormed by large and small Western companies who saw the Asian country as a possibility to increase turnover, without paying attention to a series of “annoying” limitations, such as environmental regulations and respect for workers’ rights. Therefore, with this looting mentality in mind, countless companies have moved to China in search of easy earnings, putting aside any moral qualms, often relocating wildly to the East, sending home workers in place of cheaper labor, often also taking advantage of government incentives to promote foreign trade.

Disney wasn’t the first Western company to try to satisfy Beijing’s wishes. The NBA lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue after a dispute over comments directed at the situation in Hong Kong. The English Premier League was also confined to a corner for the same reason. Canadian canola producers had their exports frozen for a year to China, in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei founder’s daughter in Canada, all South Korean operations were halted in China during the construction of the US anti-missile system in South Korea.

Self-censorship, as well as being morally questionable, does not pay.

Matteo Damiani

CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of and

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