When Attorney General Bill Barr spoke at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in July, he criticized the entertainment industry for its alleged cooptation by the Chinese Communist Party. “Chinese government censors don’t need to say a word, because Hollywood is doing their work for them,” he said.
Just two months later, a new controversy has proven him right. Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan had already attracted criticism in recent months for its star’s endorsement of the Hong Kong government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. But Disney’s latest PR nightmare is worse by an order of magnitude. In fact, it’s not about censorship: The film’s credits include thanks for a handful of CCP entities in the Xinjiang region, the site of Beijing’s ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people there.
Social-media users were the first to point out that Disney thanks the CCP’s publicity department in Xinjiang, as well as agencies in the city of Turpan. Among these entities was the Turpan Municipality Public Security Bureau, which was added to a U.S. government blacklist last October for activities that are “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” (Filming took place before its addition to the list, though.) And the CCP’s Xinjiang “publicity department” is responsible for diffusing propaganda that convinces outsiders the genocide taking place there is anything but that.
The Mulan production team, according to a profile in Architectural Digest, visited the region prior to filming. The film’s director also visited in September 2017, as the Washington Post’s Isaac Stone Fish notes. But just months before that trip, Chen Quanguo, Beijing’s top official in Xinjiang, had already began the mass-detention campaign that has since swept up well over a million people. Chen’s efforts amount to a systematic attempt to stamp out Turkic minorities and the Islamic faith in Xinjiang using brutal gulags, mass surveillance everywhere else, and a forced-sterilization program to drive down Uyghur birthrates (efforts that constitute genocide). Disney’s partner — the Turpan Security Bureau — is complicit in these atrocities.
Disney has apparently turned a blind eye to all of this. Even granting the company the most generous benefit of the doubt, if the crew was unaware of what was happening in 2017, it’s unfathomable that such ignorance could have persisted through the beginning of the film’s production in 2018. Those working on the film might even have seen the camps: On Twitter, Shawn Zhang notes that if the crew took “highway G312 to Shanshan desert where the filmed, they could see at least 7 re-education camps.”
Disney might be the first U.S. company to thank entities involved in perpetrating the Uyghur genocide, but it’s not the first to willfully ignore the situation. Who can forget the revelation that McKinsey held a massive corporate retreat just four miles from one of the concentration camps? Or that the NBA operated a training center in Xinjiang that, unsurprisingly, drew its own human-rights complaints? But the most lurid examples ignore the most widespread normalization of the abuses by multinational companies: Uyghur forced labor plays a massive role in the global textile industry, allegedly implicating numerous well-known brands, such as Nike, Adidas, and Uniqlo.
In each of these cases, business leaders weighed the potential downsides of doing business with Xinjiang-based entities. Disney’s decision to move forward with production shows how executives evaluated that potential tradeoff. That they are willing to accept some level of complicity in the Xinjiang genocide is not news. Just last fall, then-Disney CEO Bob Iger said that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is not “something we should engage in a public manner” because it might harm the company.
But this episode nonetheless offers a couple of lessons. The U.S. government has made significant progress toward curtailing companies’ involvement in tainted supply chains. In a supply-chain business advisory issued July 1, the Trump administration warned businesses of the coming crackdown, writing that entities with business with Xinjiang ties “should be aware of reputational, economic, and, in certain instances, legal, risks associated with certain types of involvement.”
The Trump administration also promulgated new sanctions against a Chinese paramilitary group that facilitates forced labor, and on Monday evening, the New York Times reported that the White House was considering new rules that would effectively ban the import of all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang.
But the U.S. government’s warnings about customs enforcement and export controls don’t precisely implicate companies such as Disney. It’s not as if the Trump administration would prevent the company from offering Mulan for streaming and download. For companies in certain industries, the odds of their products facing heavier regulation is particularly terrifying. But while the addition of several Turpan-based government entities to the Commerce Department’s blacklist would prevent companies from cooperating with them in the future, Disney could still seek partners in Xinjiang untouched by the current sanctions. The risk to companies that act similarly is “merely” reputational right now.
The furor over Mulan is a reminder of the other industries that can be of use to the Chinese regime. No doubt the latest Disney film is a subtle propaganda coup, showing that American producers can shoot in Xinjiang as if no genocide were taking place. And it’s not just film. To this day, Twitter factchecks the U.S. president, but affixes no such label to official Chinese accounts that spread propaganda whitewashing the Uyghur genocide. Chinese officials on the platform are permitted to cast doubt on the research and reputations of those who have worked to reveal the CCP’s Xinjiang crimes to the rest of the world. Beijing’s genocide-denial campaign has a global reach — and that is, in no small part, thanks to American ingenuity.
Since Mulan’s release this past weekend, Disney’s reputation has certainly taken a hit. Disney has revealed that it’s willing to debase itself in pursuit of the Chinese market. But is this revelation enough to change the calculus of American businesses willing to tune out what’s happening in Xinjiang? Only if consumers make Disney pay.