Disney has been silent and unapologetic regarding the shooting of some scenes shown in the live-action film “Mulan” which was released in September 2020. The filming in the Xinjiang region has “generated a lot of issues for us,” the company said. Yet, the producers have not spoken out against the current mass detention of the ethnic Uighur population.
The Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim minority group from China’s far western region in the Xinjiang state. The people have been subjected to mass surveillance, detention, and forced labor by the Communist government. It maintains the group is responsible for terrorism and extremism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) denies that the detention centers are used as concentration camps. Instead, it claims they are reeducation centers to teach the Uighurs Chinese and provide skills to lift them out of poverty.
Reports on the detention centers reveal that torture, forced labor, and women’s sterilization occur on a mass scale.
The financial sector has demonstrated that investors can pressure the garment industry to make sure their supply chains do not involve products from the forced labor camps of the Xinjiang region. Still, the U.S. entertainment industry is reluctant to speak out against China’s Human Rights abuses.
Similar to other large studios, Disney has keen interests in China as the market proves to be lucrative. In 2019 movie ticket sales were $9.2 billion, second to the U.S. In 2020 sales were $2.7 billion, beating U.S. figures during the pandemic year when many theaters worldwide were shut down.
In a country where the potential number of theatergoers make a massive impact on worldwide revenue, it’s often challenging for film producers to gain entry into the market. China has strict censorship rules, regulations, and a quota for the maximum number of foreign films permitted screening. To navigate through the censors and gain access to the Chinese markets, film studios write scripts that the CCP Regime approves of by choosing Chinese actors to play positive roles in line with communist propaganda.
Blacklisted in China
In 1997, when the Chinese movie market was small and did not significantly impact worldwide box office sales, three movies were released that fuelled the CCP Regime’s anger. They were: ‘Seven Years in Tibet,’ starring Brad Pitt, ‘Kundun,’ directed by Martin Scorcese, and ‘Red Corner,’ starring Richard Gere. ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and ‘Kundun’ were films about the Dalai Lama, and ‘Red Corner’ was a drama featuring the Chinese legal system and wrongful arrest.
The film studios then discovered their films banned for five years from theaters in China. It was a scare tactic and message to foreign producers of films on what could happen if a movie does not depict China positively.
In an interview with PEN America, Stanley Rosen stated, “China will focus on everything that has a China component in it. Don’t think that if you’re doing something that’s not intended for China, that’s an indie film meant for a small market, that China won’t notice and that it won’t hurt your blockbuster film. It will.”
Hollywood producers would rather self-censor and rewrite movies to avoid being left out of Chinese theaters knowing that there are topics that cannot be portrayed. Tibet, Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Hong Kong democracy protests, and the Falun Dafa spiritual group are considered taboo.
Strangely, scenes covering the phenomena of time travel and other science fiction topics involving the supernatural are off-limits as well. Movies that reference these issues are forbidden, and Hollywood producers rewrite scripts to comply with CCP criteria.
The CCP supports “telling China’s story well” in films that promote the country’s greatness and correctness, serving as soft power to the rest of the world.
Importance of the Chinese market
In 2018 five out of the top 10 films in China were Hollywood produced. The following year, in 2019, eight of the top ten films in China were domestically produced. Last year proved that Chinese domestic productions could push Hollywood studio releases out of the top 10 entirely.
2018 was a year that shifted focus on domestic versus foreign film as Chinese leader Xi Jinping noted at a national meeting on propaganda. “It is necessary to guide the broad masses of cultural and artistic workers … to use heart and soul in expressing the era of greatness by writing nonstop songs of praise for the party, the motherland, the people, the heroes, to write a new historical epic of the Chinese ethnic people.”
The same year the CCP brought oversight of the media under the Central Propaganda Department, further consolidating a unified message of China’s image abroad and at home.
As box office sales in 2019 and 2020 show, Chinese domestic productions compete with big blockbuster films from Hollywood. Growing anti-foreign sentiment because of trade wars with other countries and disputes on sensitive topics push Chinese viewers domestically to produce patriotic films. A similar parallel can be seen in the Chinese economy as the country plans to shift to a market economy less reliant on foreign trade and focus on domestic investments.
With a growing share of Chinese-produced films for the Chinese audience, it will be interesting to see if Hollywood still feels the need to comply with CCP censors in the future.