Liu Yifei, the star of Disney’s new live-action remake of its 1998 cartoon Mulan, posted a message on Weibo last year expressing support for the Hong Kong police as they were brutally suppressing protests in the city. Her comments prompted an online campaign to boycott the movie. The campaign received new impetus this month when it was discovered that parts of the film had been shot in Xinjiang in 2018, when it was already widely known that more than a million people, mostly Uyghurs, were being detained in ‘re-education’ facilities, subject to brainwashing, violence and intimidation. The movie credits thank the Communist Party’s publicity department and the Public Security Bureau for the Turpan prefecture, where at least ten internment camps are operating. ‘It has generated a lot of publicity,’ Disney’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, said yesterday. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’
‘We don’t wish to be political,’ Alan Horn, Disney’s chief creative officer, said earlier this year. ‘And to get dragged into a political discussion, I would argue, is sort of inherently unfair. We’re not politicans, it’s not what we do. We’re making movies.’ But even for Disney, as a purveyor of ‘magic’, this is (at best) wishful thinking – and somewhat at odds with its mission ‘to entertain, inform and inspire people’.
Any economic relationship with China now risks supporting the abuses in Xinjiang. Companies including Apple, Gap, Sony and BMW, whose supply chains involve Chinese factories, are potentially complicit. A recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that between 2017 and 2019, at least 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred to factories outside Xinjiang. State media claim the labour transfers are voluntary – in China as a whole there were an estimated 290 million migrant workers in 2019 – but the conditions under which Uyghurs are working (constant surveillance, compulsory Mandarin lessons, ideological indoctrination), and testimony from workers who have since left China, strongly indicate coercion. Some Uyghurs went straight to the factories from the re-education camps; they say they were threatened with being sent back if they broke the rules.
The labour transfers contribute to the erosion of Uyghur community and culture. Over the last five years, academics and artists have been imprisoned; mosques and sacred sites have been destroyed; and the Uyghur language has been further marginalised in education and public life. The racist logic behind this is often stated in official discourse in terms of the need to improve people’s ‘quality’: a long-standing stereotype among Han Chinese is that Uyghurs are ‘wild’ and ‘uncivilised’. In the disciplined factory environment, it’s said, Uyghurs will become ‘modern’ citizens; one report claimed the experience would teach the workers to ‘take daily showers’.
It may seem jejune to chide a Hollywood film for historical inaccuracy, but in Mulan’s case it’s especially egregious. The Xianbei, the good guys in the movie, were a Turkic people (as are the Uyghurs), yet are depicted as a Confucian Han Chinese civilisation fighting against barbaric invaders, an inversion almost certainly intended to appeal to audiences in China. (‘If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem!’ Alan Horn has said.)
It isn’t easy to establish which foreign companies are benefiting from Uyghur forced labour, thanks to the complexity of supply chains and a lack of transparency about what gets made where. Most large corporations deny any knowledge of abuses in their factories in China, and claim to carry out regular audits of their suppliers. Yet there have been cases in which a company’s involvement in abuses, once proven, left it little choice but to take action: the Badger sportswear company severed its links with a supplier in 2019. The reputational and legal risk for US companies is likely to increase with the imminent blockade of cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang (about 7 per cent of the world’s cotton comes from the region).
Since the internment camps became common knowledge in 2017, most governments have done little more than express a toothless ‘concern’. As for the widespread international condemnation of what’s happening in Xinjiang, China has been mostly indifferent to such criticism since its suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Yet, hard though it may be to believe now, there was a period during the 1980s when Beijing promoted mosque-building and Arabic-learning in Xinjiang in an attempt to gain investment from the Middle East. China is now in a much stronger position than it was then, but the best form of leverage is still economic. Xinjiang’s economic health is vital to its role in the Belt and Road Initiative, which is in turn crucial to China’s future economic growth and stability. Boycotts and sanctions won’t change Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang, but they may mean fewer people are forced to work in factories far from home.