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'Uyghurs Are the Real Mulan,' Uyghur Supporters Say

Supporters of Hong Kong protesters stage a rally calling for a boycott of the Disney-produced film "Mulan" outside Walt Disney Korea office in Seoul, South Korea, July 1, 2020.
'Uyghurs Are the Real Mulan,' Uyghur Supporters Say
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Mulan has been one of Jewher Ilham’s favorite movies since she was a little girl. She remembers sitting with her father, a Uyghur economist and professor, to watch Disney’s 1998 animated movie. Mulan tells the ancient Chinese story of a girl who tricks people into thinking she is a man so she can join the army. She becomes a great soldier.

Now, the new version of Mulan is out, starring Chinese-born American Liu Yifei. At first, Jewher was looking forward to seeing the film.

“I was so excited about the live-action remake, until one of my favorite actresses, Liu Yifei, publicly supported the Hong Kong police against pro-democracy protesters,” Jewher told VOA.

In a social media post last year, Liu expressed support for Hong Kong police. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the comment.

But Liu’s comment is only partly to blame for Jewher's concern about the new movie. She is also upset that Disney filmed some parts of Mulan in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The Chinese government has been accused of severe human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in the area.

Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei attends the world premiere of Disney's "Mulan."
Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei attends the world premiere of Disney's "Mulan."

Disney thanked local governments in the film credits, including the city of Turpan’s public security department. China's government is holding more than one million Uyghur Muslims in detention camps in Turpan. The U.S. government ordered sanctions against the department as a result.

“I have relatives and friends in the concentration camps. They might be in a camp near where the movie was shot,” she said.

Jewher Ilham, daughter of imprisoned Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti holds a photo of her father during the Sakharov Prize ceremony at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019.
Jewher Ilham, daughter of imprisoned Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti holds a photo of her father during the Sakharov Prize ceremony at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019.

China arrested Jewher’s father, Ilham Tohti, on charges of separatism in 2014 and sentenced the human rights activist to life in prison.

Rayhan Asat is a Uyghur lawyer based in Washington, D.C. She is seeking the release of her brother, Ekpar Asat. She and other experts believe China imprisoned the 34-year-old in 2016, shortly after he returned to China from the U.S. He had taken part in a State Department program there.

Rayhan spoke with VOA about the release of Mulan. She said Disney’s actions indirectly fund the Communist Party bodies that imprison Uyghurs. She said Disney’s actions violate corporate social responsibility rules.

To her, the release of Mulan is the latest example of Hollywood’s readiness to ignore accepted values to do business in China.

“Disney wants to profit by a movie that empowers woman. But it’s praising governments who are committing crimes against woman, against humanity. It’s so hypocritical,” she told VOA.

“In my eyes, the Uyghur women who are voicing out for their parents, brothers, sisters, and loved ones, they are the real Mulan," she added.

The film has been the subject of intense public discussion since it was released on Disney Plus in the U.S. on September 4. The messages #BoycottMulan and #BoycottDisney have spread widely on social media. And a group of American lawmakers has demanded the leader of Disney, Bob Chapek, explain the company’s cooperation with “security and propaganda” powers in Xinjiang during filming.

Last Thursday, Disney’s Chief Financial Officer, Christine McCarthy, admitted the film’s ties to China had created problems for the company. But Disney refused to comment further on the matter.

On Friday, a representative from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it’s “very normal” for the film to thank the government of Xinjiang.” He also praised the lead actress Liu Yifei, calling her the real “daughter of the Chinese nation.” China continues to claim the camps in Xinjiang are training camps aimed at fighting terrorism.

Officials and civic groups have growing concerns about the influence China has had over Hollywood in recent years.

They accuse Hollywood filmmakers of making changes to films so that China would be willing to release them.

Some reports say filmmakers have invited Chinese government censors onto their film sets as advisors.

Beijing has the world’s second-highest box office market after the United States. Hollywood Reporter magazine says American films earned $2.6 billion in China last year.

Even with the political and social criticism of Mulan, the film was the top movie last week in China’s theaters. Early estimates show Mulan made $23.2 million.

In other markets, Disney canceled plans to release Mulan in theaters because of the COVID-19 health crisis. The company has not said how many people have bought the film since it became available September 4 in the U.S.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Stella Hsu reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

animated – adj. produced by the creation of a series of drawings or pictures that are shown quickly one after another

excited – adj. very enthusiastic and eager about something

sanctions – n. an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country or by doing something else

concentration camp – n. a type of prison where large numbers of people are kept and are usually forced to live in very bad conditions

fund – v. to provide money for something

hypocritical – adj. a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs

censor – v. to examine books, movies and other things in order to remove things that are considered unlawful, immoral or harmful

box office – n. a term used for describing how many tickets have been sold for a movie, play or something else