Andrew de Villiers
Disney's China Hypocrisy Continues
Disney's Mulan is the studio's most problematic picture since Song of the South, and it's just the beginning...
This is the original premiere blog in my bi-weekly series 'Liberal Media Bias' which will examine politics, current events and filmmaking from a (mostly) progressive, liberal position. It was replaced by a more topical post about 2020 and the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As demonstrated by my nearly double digit trips to Disneyland, my high points balance on Disney Magic Rewards, my bluray collection and my love for cosplay, I LOVE almost all things Disney. I am just one fan level away from having a pin collection and wearing matching Micky Mouse shirts with my girlfriend. And that's why I find it so discouraging to see Disney acting the villain after decades spent trying to adjust their brand to support more inclusivity.
It's a really sad state of affairs that Disney can fire creatives for misguided tweets or express their support for black lives (#blacklivesmatter), while simultaneously ignoring the macro issue of democracy and freedom, as well as serious human rights abuses, when it comes to China. As the largest studio, and manager of most of the biggest brands on Earth, Disney has a responsibility to fans around the world to be honest with their creative products.
Disney has long had problems with inclusivity, choosing to be a market reactor rather than a leader when it comes to progressive social issues. It used to be not wanting to alienate or shock middle America and the fly over states, or sensitive (often religious) parents who didn't see family entertainment as the environment to showcase progressive ideas. First it was depictions of black characters on screen and jewish filmmakers off screen. Later it was the slow response to LGBTQ inclusion in sitcoms and movies.
To their credit, Disney has come a long way. They are the studio behind Black Panther, right? Well, let's not forget it took Black Panther too long to make the slate because Disney wasn't confident in its ability to make money, especially in places like China.
Disney, and other studios are flat out scared of China.
Which brings us to the main point of this piece. Disney, and other studios are flat out scared of China. That market, which has become so large it will overtake the U.S. and Canada box office any day now, is controlled by the central government. Sensors in China restrict negative images of Chinese and restrict LGBTQ content. China limits diversity (other than Chinese characters) and shies away from sexuality and considers magic taboo. There is more, but that should get us started.
Where this becomes problematic is that studios are increasingly turning to mega-blockbusters to fill out the majority of their movie slates, and these films cannot afford NOT to open in China. If you have ever wondered why you've never seen an LGBTQ super hero in a Marvel movie, China is a big reason why. If you're curious why you haven't seen Richard Gere in any major movie in over a decade, China is why. The actor, and many others, recently testified before the US Congress to warn Americans about the danger China poses to freedom of thought.
Which brings us back to Disney. No US studio is more reliant on China for revenue. Disneyland Shanghai and Hong Kong, with movie distribution and resort businesses make up a growing portion of Disney's revenue. And unlike the NBA, who have chosen to stand with players rights to free speech and have lost billions exiting China as a result, Disney is too cowardly to stand up for what's right.
When Mulan star Liu Yifei posted her support for Hong Kong police in pro-democracy demonstrations... Disney was silent.
The hypocrisy here is plain as day. When Mulan star Liu Yifei posted her support for Hong Kong police in pro-democracy demonstrations last year, Disney was silent. So was the rest of the cast and director, which implies a silencing of voices behind the scenes. To be clear, that's conjecture, not fact, but I do think it's likely what happened. Too much was riding on Disney succeeding with Mulan in China. As Disney Studio's chairman Alan Horn admitted, "If Mulan doesn't work in China, we have a problem." Disney is still paying for distributing Kundun over twenty years ago.
Disney failing to stand up for democracy in Honk Kong, where they do a lot of business in English as well as Cantonese, was abhorrent on its own. Then news broke a couple weeks back that Mulan was partially filmed in the the Xinjiang region of China, where Muslim Uyghurs are actively being enslaved, reconditioned and murdered in the largest genocide since Nazi Germany in World War Two. Not only that, but filmmakers thanks police in the region for their help making Mulan, despite their evil deeds. Again, Disney's response has been ridiculous in its hypocrisy and its callousness.
To be fair to Disney, they are not the only company over a barrel in China, turning a blind eye to abuses that in any other country would produce a much different response. Google, Apple, Samsung and others are self censoring, breaking their own ethics rules to operate in China. Their hope, they will say, is that democracy will eventually come naturally to China peacefully, and they will be a part of it, using their technology for good. But an Arab spring style uprising is not going to happen in China. As Hong Kong has shown, western democracies are not strong enough to stand up to China, and most poor countries have been effectively 'bought' by China through loans, grants and infrastructure projects that might as well make them part of China.
Those loans and financing are part of the Hollywood problem, beyond box office. Something few people outside the industry will talk about is how films are financed. Increasingly, blockbusters and mid-level risky films are securing their funding with Chinese companies. I personally know several people who have moved their entire production plans to run through a Chinese lens as Europe produces more content in house and the market becomes more saturated.
Part of the problem is America's complacency and capitalism run amuck...
Look, if you told Americans in 1980 that their Spielberg adventures and Schwarzenegger action fests were going to be sensored to accomodate the Soviet Union, the American people would be incensed. Hollywood would be accused of communism and studio heads would be chased out of town or prosecuted. Now though, it's just the cost of doing business. Part of the problem is America's complacency and capitalism run amuck, but part of the problem is that China's propeganda has already done its job. We've had the Beijing Olympics, we've had backlash over Seven Years In Tibet, which was not controversial other than framing China as authoritarian. We've had China lure American companies in with a smile, only to slowly remove protections and add restrictions.
The same way China has slowly and quietly removed freedoms in Hong Kong, they have pacified the public with these pleasant and sanitized images of their government. If you don't feel like China is a threat to your freedom of speech or your ability to just enjoy a popcorn movie, you're already drinking the Kool-aid. There is almost no time left to act and ensure studios are forced to respect freedom and the right of expression of their filmmakers.
So where does all this leave us? Are we doomed to a future of LGBTQ characters only showing up in small art house films (as they do now) and studios making films about corruption in America while China is portrayed as great and wonderful? The sad truth is, possibly, yes. There may be nothing we can do. However, the one thing we can do, is avoid watching films like Mulan, which blatantly pander to Chinese audiences while failing to grasp their culture or honour western ideals like democracy and freedom of speech.
You can demand companies like Disney and Google refuse to mussel employees and creative in their employ.
You can demand your government, whether you be American, Canadian or European, demand standards that push back on China's strict rules, so that films continue to be made on all scales with freedom of expression. You can demand companies like Disney and Google refuse to mussel employees and creatives in their employ, and you can pressure them to support democracy in Hong Kong and the rest of China through freedom of the press and free speech.
China is effectively holding studios hostages, and when you pay the ransom, everyone knows that opens up the door and sets a dangerous precedent for cooperation. First it was Richard Gere and digital Koreans in Red Dawn, then it was the awful Iron Man 3 subplot and pro-China characters jammed in to just about every blockbuster since.
There is nothing wrong with representation of Asian American actors in Hollywood films, but there is a difference between representation and propaganda, and very quickly we're sliding to a point of no return for many American blockbusters. I previously wrote about the state of streaming, US theatres and Covid, and I hypothesized that movies were dying, at least when it came to smaller films and medium sized films. And thanks to China, what's left on the big screen will be sanitized, even more than it already is by corporations. Ironically, it is pressure on those same corporations that will make the largest impact on China. Chinese people love American movies and technology. Sure they can knock off the iPhone or make their own super hero movies, but one thing China does not have under their thumb is quality. If they want the best, they should have to play by our rules, respect artistic expression and free speech- Not the other way around.