top of page

Disney, China and the Art of Cancel Culture

By Raiyah Butt

Illustration by Crystakat

Every week on social media, something or someone falls into the jaws of the woke-era phenomenon loosely called “cancel culture”, which has become the main consequence of any actions that are deemed socially unacceptable online. Like most things in our social media generation, cancel culture is a double edged sword - it’s good for exposing truths and holding figures accountable, but it is also often applied carelessly and reduces accountability to a trending hashtag that dies down when the next thing comes along.

However, the #BoycottMulan, is a little different to your typical cancel culture moment. There are two main issues which the film is being criticised for, and the fact that it outrageously costs $30 to watch on top of a Disney+ subscription is not one of them. The credits of the movie thanked the Chinese Communist Party Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee and the Bureau of Public Security in Turpan, a city in the region. Xinjiang is where it is believed over 1 million Uyghur Muslims are being held in detention centres, called “re-education camps” by the Chinese government.

Now, before I go any further, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what China is doing to Uyghur Muslims, a lot of it fuelled by the Western incentive to demonise China and score political points by doing so. The US especially, who are in a constant state of hostility with China, use the plight of the Uyghers to their own advantage to appeal to an anti-Chinese sentiment, rather than actually caring about the lives of Uygher Muslims and wanting to end their persecution. With that said, it is important that the issue is discussed beyond the political propaganda playground, and China’s human rights abuses are taken seriously and dealt with on an international level.

Uyghur Muslims are a Turkic ethnic group, who live in China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other surrounding regions. Around 11 million live in Xinjiang, which is designated an autonomous region, but actually has very little against the Chinese government. Uyghur Muslims and activists have spoken out about the steady erosion of their rights and culture, and the “re-education camps” are allegedly forcing Uyghur Muslims to assimilate to Han Chinese culture and abandon their cultural and religious lifestyle. China first denied the existence of the camps, but later justified them saying they are necessary to crack down on terrorist threats and separatist violence.

The Bureau of Public Security that is credited in Mulan is accused as one of the facilitators of the internment camps, where it is alleged that Uyghur Muslims suffer abuse, torture, and even reports of forced sterilisation.

This is one of the reasons there are calls to cancel Mulan, acknowledging the film maker’s disregard for human rights abuses and their links to those involved in committing them. Not only this, but the actress who plays Mulan, Liu Yifei, voiced her support for the Hong Kong police during pro-democracy protests. In August 2019, during the height of the protests, the actress shared an image that said: "I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” The protests were sparked over an extradition bill which gave China powers over Hong Kong legal matters, but were a larger opposition to the encroaching control of China over Hong Kong, another region which is designated autonomy. Liu Yifei’s support of the Hong Kong police is controversial as the police dealt heavy violence on the protesters, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

Mulan is a story that is loved by so many for its strong female lead who follows her heart and does what is good and right. Disney’s reboot has erased this fundamental message by “cooperating with those who allegedly systematically violate human rights.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who encourages the boycott of the movie, said that Disney needs to know that “kowtow to China is not the way out, and to celebrities or actors that endorse police brutality, the world will give response and backfire to it”. Mulan is a story that is loved by so many for its strong female lead who follows her heart and does what is good and right. Disney’s reboot has erased this fundamental message by “cooperating with those who allegedly systematically violate human rights”, and is driven by consumerism, monetary gain and access to a growing Chinese market.

The plot itself has been criticised for a Chinese “nationalist drama” retelling of the story, which diverts from the original folk tale and distorts the history of the Turks by villainizing the Hun people.

Whether or not the calls to cancel the movie on social media will have any real effect on its success, we are yet to see. Disney’s influence is not to be underestimated, and as a cooperation so large it is willing to receive small backlashes and sacrifice ideals with the potential billions it could earn from the Chinese market. As consumers, it is difficult to escape the grips of consumer capitalism, especially knowing that the majority of the things we buy, stream, or invest in are provided by unethical means. Disney is not the only one with links to Xinjiang, major companies such as Apple, Nike, GAP, BMW, Huawei, Fila, Sony, Amazon and Lacoste have all been accused of directly or indirectly benefiting from forced labour in Uygher camps.

So as I write to raise awareness of the ethnic cleansing of Uighurs, with my Apple Iphone next to me, admittedly wearing Nike sliders, and knowing that as much as I try not everything I do is ethical, how do we react? First, we can’t all feel guilty about things which are almost entirely out of our control, such as the supply chains of big companies. But what we can do is make the conscious decision to support the voices of activists, human rights workers, and some former detainees in this case, who are raising awareness of the Uyghers persecution and keeping the pressure on companies and officials.

Keeping #BoycottMulan going is a small step to take, but one that sends a message.



bottom of page