Entertainment and marketability are the core business concerns of Walt Disney Co, but that changes completely as soon as China is involved. The idea that movies are separate from politics does not hold water in China.
In China, the movie industry’s purpose is to serve politics — it is there to amplify the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In this context, it is perfectly normal to see the CCP’s propaganda department in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region among the ending credits of Disney’s latest movie Mulan.
The CCP’s atrocities in Xinjiang — the establishment of “re-education” camps, the contempt for human rights and the cultural genocide through forced assimilation — have drawn a wave of global criticism, and the US Department of the Treasury has imposed sanctions on four incumbent and former Chinese officials in the region.
Is it possible that Disney is unaware of this, or is it willfully ignoring the facts to boost its business in China?
If the latter is the case, the expression of support for Hong Kong police during the crackdown on democracy protests last year might not have been so much a personal decision of the movie’s leading actress, Liu Yifei (劉亦菲), but part of a larger business strategy. If that were true, Mulan would be no better than a so-called blood diamond.
Before Mulan hit movie theater screens in Taiwan, there were calls for a boycott, mostly from supporters of the Hong Kong protests, but to the great astonishment of many, the movie has been very successful at the box office.
As large parts of the public have been supportive of Hong Kongers rallying against an extradition bill to mainland China and a new National Security Law, it is quite ironic to see the movie do so well, with a lead actress applauding the Hong Kong police.
This turn of events can be analyzed from several perspectives.
First, in most other nations, the movie was released on Disney’s streaming platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its global success is also the success of the business model of a post-pandemic economy.
However, in countries where the platform is not available, such as Taiwan, going to a movie theater is the only option to see the global blockbuster.
Second, moviegoers are not necessarily a politically aware demographic. In an established democracy, the number of people concerned about politics tends to decrease, and large parts of the public are less likely to understand things in their daily lives as politically relevant.
Third, even if the people who watch Mulan are indeed aware of the political implications, Taiwanese tend to keep movies and politics separate. A developed democracy also allows for the judgement of a movie by entirely apolitical standards.
However, Taiwanese should be on the alert of being “brainwashed” by the Chinese value system.
Under Beijing’s one-party dictatorship, entertainers have to be in line with the CCP to stand a chance of becoming famous. Moreover, no matter how popular an entertainer is, their career could come to an abrupt end if they make a political mistake.
The rules also apply to Taiwanese entertainers who try to make it in China, maybe thinking that the Chinese show business is free from politics or that they can steer clear of controversy as long as they avoid political taboos.
It turns out that trying to remain apolitical has not served many of them well.
In the eyes of Beijing’s “50 cent army” — Internet users hired by the government to manipulate public opinion — and Chinese independently acting on social media as Beijing’s enforcers, even the slightest affront to a political taboo, such as calling Taiwan “my country” or “the country I come from,” leads to immediate denunciation.
In such situations, Taiwanese entertainers often see no other choice — sometimes under pressure from management companies or agents — but to publicly apologize, say that they espouse unification and oppose Taiwanese independence, and lose every shred of personal dignity.
Under an authoritarian regime, actors and actresses are part of the government’s propaganda department. In China, they are shaped into public figures to amplify and spread the regime’s agenda — be they Chinese or Taiwanese.
While this approach might work in China, it has no effect in Taiwan. Entertainers pledging loyalty to Beijing, spontaneously or under pressure, has hardly any pro-China impact in Taiwan, as is evidenced by election results.
On the other hand, Taiwanese entertainers expressing loyalty to China, are unlikely to be widely boycotted in Taiwan, as long as they perform well in their field and do not overdo their statements in support of Beijing.
The Taiwanese media will continue covering their careers and Taiwanese follow their social media.
This is not because Taiwanese are unable to tell what is right from wrong politically. It shows that Taiwan’s democracy has developed to the point that people can tolerate positions that are different from theirs.
From the viewpoint of politics, there are different opinions on Mulan, as if movie-watching was political science.
Some commentators point to the irony of Taiwanese being enraged at a video clip showing Hong Kong police tackling a 12-year-old girl, while the movie tops the nation’s box office rankings.
There are also those who argue that movies are entertainment and should not be taken too seriously, saying that watching Mulan has nothing to do with politics.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raged across the world for more than six months, putting a stop to the global movie industry and deeply affecting the whole entertainment sector.
The new Disney movie, a live-action adaptation of its 1998 animated classic of the same name, has probably fared so well because people have been especially hungry for new movies, and its success can be compared to the boom in domestic tourism in the past few months.
If the nation watches Mulan, it does not mean that the audience is blindly following Liu in her support of Hong Kong police.
No matter how “supportive” Liu is of Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, she is a US citizen.
Two other veteran stars in the movie, Jet Li (李連杰) and Gong Li (鞏俐), many years ago became naturalized Singaporeans.
They are not alone. As soon as Chinese entertainers achieve success and become famous, they reach for foreign passports.
This move, based on careful calculations of interest and self-protection, shows that they have at least seen through the myth that their industry is apolitical.
It also sheds light on the hidden rule that underpins China’s glorious movie industry: Today’s success is no guarantee for tomorrow’s protection.
An entertainment giant like Disney should not have allowed rules made by the CCP to take over worldwide, letting down movie enthusiasts who still harbor illusions about the industry.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming.
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