Disney executive defends Mulan filming in China despite government’s human rights abuses

Disney’s president of film production, Sean Bailey, addressed the recent controversy over the studio’s live-action Mulan remake in a letter to a British politician this week. In the letter, which member of parliament Iain Duncan Smith posted online Thursday, Bailey defended the choice to film portions of Mulan in an area of China that has been the site of extensive human rights abuses.

a group of people walking down a dirt road: Jasin Boland/Disney

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Jasin Boland/Disney

After Mulan debuted on Disney+ last month, controversy arose when viewers noticed the end credits included “special thanks” to several government entities in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China. The region has been the site of what experts have called a “cultural genocide,” with the Chinese government detaining and torturing Uighur Muslims in mass “re-education” camps.

Some of the entities thanked in Mulan‘s credits have been directly linked to this campaign, including the Turpan Bureau of Public Security, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department last year. The news raised questions from U.S. lawmakers and other observers about the degree to which Disney cooperated with the Chinese government. Duncan Smith, a prominent politician of the British Conservative Party and co-chair of the U.K.’s Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, sent a letter to Bailey inquiring about the film.

In his reply, dated Oct. 7, Bailey noted that the footage filmed in China, which consisted entirely of landscape shots, “comprises 78 seconds” of the 115-minute film, and was shot “over a brief four-day period — compared to 143 days of filming in New Zealand.”

“Although Mulan was filmed almost entirely in New Zealand, in order to accurately depict the unique geography and landscape of China for this period drama, the producers chose to film some scenery in 20 locations throughout the country, including the Kumtag Desert in Xinjiang Province, home to an important passageway along the historic Silk Road,” Bailey wrote. “The decision to film in each of these locations was made by the film’s producers in the interest of authenticity, and was in no way dictated or influenced by state or local Chinese officials.”

a group of people in costumes: In a letter, a Disney executive defended the decision to film portions of 'Mulan' in China despite the government's reported human rights violations.

© Jasin Boland/Disney
In a letter, a Disney executive defended the decision to film portions of ‘Mulan’ in China despite the government’s reported human rights violations.

He added that the studio was required to cooperate with the government in order to film in China, writing, “There are regulations that must be followed by all foreign film production companies wanting to operate in China. These companies are not allowed to operate independently and must partner with a Chinese production company which is responsible for securing all film permits.” The thanks in the credits were simply standard industry practice, he continued, saying the production company provided a list of entities to thank for granting permission to film.

This is the closest Disney has come to an official statement on the controversy. Previously, CFO Christine M. McCarthy merely said during a conference that Mulan‘s credits had “generated a lot of issues for us.”

In his letter, Bailey also noted that the process for securing permission to film in China began in 2017, at which point “neither the U.K. nor the U.S. government had issued a risk advisory for businesses nor made any relevant policy rulings specific to the region.”

However, by the time Mulan began filming in August 2018, reports of the camps in Xinjiang and China’s actions against Muslims were widespread in the media. In his tweet posting the letter, Duncan Smith argued that “Disney simply does not want to offend China, and have given in to China’s demands and will not stand up to them.”

“Disney’s corporate policy does not appear to care about the human rights issues affecting the #Uighurs,” he continued. “It seems human rights come second to the corporate policy of not upsetting China.”

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