Disney’s president of film production Sean Bailey defended the controversial credits for the new live-action “Mulan” film, which thanked Chinese government entities directly involved in perpetuating human rights abuses in Xinjiang, as being part of “standard practice across the film industry worldwide,” according to a letter addressed to and posted online by prominent British politician Iain Duncan Smith.
Disney's corporate policy does not appear to care about the human rights issues affecting the #Uighurs. It seems human rights come second to the corporate policy of not upsetting China. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/3wXVQLuVOf
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@MPIainDS) October 8, 2020
The choice to film in the region was made for reasons of “authenticity,” Bailey explained.
Disney made global headlines when “Mulan,” released to its Disney+ platform on Sept. 4, gave “special thanks” during the film’s end credits to eight different Chinese government departments in Xinjiang, a number of which are directly involved in the campaign that critics have deemed a cultural genocide. They include the Turpan Bureau of Public Security, which was last October sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department for engaging in “human rights violations and abuses in implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”
In the letter dated Oct. 7 on official Disney letterhead, Bailey wrote, in Disney’s defense: “It is standard practice across the film industry worldwide to acknowledge in a film’s credits the cooperation, approvals, and assistance provided by various entities and individuals over the course of a film’s production. In this case, the production company Beijing Shadow Times provided our production team with the list of acknowledgements to be included in the credits for ‘Mulan.’”
To bolster his point, he included “examples of credits from other films shot in international locations” in further pages that were not posted online, concluding: “I hope this clarification puts this issue in the proper perspective.”
The remarks rank among the very few that have emerged from any Disney executive since the “Mulan” release. Disney’s CFO Christine McCarthy echoed Bailey’s explanation at an unrelated conference in early September, saying that filming in China requires government approvals and “it’s common to acknowledge in a film’s credits the national and local governments that allowed you to film there.”
Disney has not issued a formal statement or apology on the matter, and has told creatives involved in “Mulan” to steer clear of the subject.
In the Thursday tweet in which he publicized the letter, Conservative member of parliament Duncan Smith called Bailey’s reply “very weak and full of platitudes.”
“The reality is that Disney simply does not want to offend China, and have given in to China’s demands and will not stand up to them,” he wrote. “Disney’s corporate policy does not appear to care about the human rights issues affecting the #Uighurs. It seems human rights come second to the corporate policy of not upsetting China.”
In June, Duncan Smith and Labour peer Helena Kennedy launched the U.K.’s Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which the two now co-chair. The body seeks to “promote a coordinated response between democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China,” according to a founding statement.
The co-chairs had together written a letter to Bailey about “Mulan” that was passed on to the American exec by Tony Chambers, Disney’s EMEA senior vice president of studio distribution and country manager for U.K. and Ireland.
In his reply, Bailey further elaborated on production details and the studio’s strategic thinking.
The film “was designed to showcase the richness of Chinese culture and storytelling,” he wrote.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Desert scenery shoots there took place over just four days, a fraction of the 143 days spent filming in New Zealand, and the resulting footage appears for just 78 seconds of the film’s 115 minute runtime, he pointed out.
Disney contracted private Chinese production firm Beijing Shadow Times to help with the China-side shooting process. That company began submitting requests for permits to state and local government entities in 2017. “During this period, 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,” Bailey wrote.
Yet even in the absence of policy rulings or risk advisories, the campaign against Uighurs would have been nearly impossible to ignore during this period, if only because of the extreme surveillance that travelers there would have been subject to wherever they went, and the visibly growing systems of checkpoints and security checks.
The earliest evidence of re-education work in Turpan, the city home to five of the government entities Disney thanked, dates back to 2013. “Mulan” was green-lit in 2015. Early reporting on the camps started to emerge around the summer of 2017. Niki Caro went to Xinjiang in September 2017, posting a photo of sand dunes there to Instagram. The production’s set designer said they spent “months” scouting in the region.
During the actual 2018 shoot, China was at the height of its “strike hard” campaign against Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population. Analysts estimate by looking at satellite imagery that there are at least 10 internment camps and five prisons in the other Xinjiang county Disney thanked.
Bailey described Disney’s decisions as the U.S. studio merely abiding by the broader rules of doing business in China.
“Global businesses have a strong presence in China — hundreds of global companies, including dozens of Fortune 500 firms, operate throughout the country, and all are required to comply with relevant laws and regulations,” he wrote. “In the same vein, there are regulations that must be followed by all foreign film production companies wanting to operate in China.”
Foreign production firms working in China are required to partner with a local company, submit their scripts for government approval, and apply for shooting permits, but there is no law dictating the form that end credits must take.