Chinese theatre box office revenues are on the rise. The previous year, theatres in China saw more than nine billion dollars in revenue, a three-fold increase from 2013. In fact, Chinese box office revenue is estimated to overtake the United States by the end of this year. For this reason, Hollywood is starting to make its films appeal to both domestic and international audiences.
On September 4, Disney released the live-action version of the beloved animated movie Mulan. Considering the Western nostalgia of its animated version and Chinese patriotism, the film was supposed to appease both Western and Chinese appetites. The latter goal was accomplished through the film’s origin story of an ancient Chinese tale about a heroine fighting foreign forces to protect her country from invaders. However, even before the live-action movie was released, it was already marred in controversy.
The main actress, Liu Yifei, a Chinese woman born in the city of Wuhan, declared support for the Hong Kong police on Weibo, a social media platform popular in Asian countries, on August 16, 2019. This action led the phrase, “#BoycottMulan,” to trend on Twitter and other social media platforms. Earlier this year in February, the young actress was absent from a Disney fan event, the D23 Expo, where the first sneak peek of the movie was released.
Disney, Hollywood, and Western governments refused to speak about Mulan‘s controversies or Yifei’s support for the Hong Kong police force, which has been violent against pro-democracy protesters in the city.
China is historically known for silencing dissent. When an actor, director, or film studio does something that goes against the Chinese government’s agenda, they are banned from the country and their work is either censored or prohibited from streaming in the country.
This censorship occurred with the film Seven Years in Tibet (1997), starring Brad Pitt as the Dalai Lama, which depicted China’s invasion of Tibet. Moreover, when actor Richard Gere made a speech at the 1993 Oscars about human rights violations in Tibet, he faced the same suppression in Chinese media.
The first Asian director to win an Oscar for best director was Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director. His achievement made the front page of several Chinese newspapers, which praised the “Chinese” cinematic talent, even though Lee’s gay romantic film Brokeback Mountain (2005) was banned from the country. A more recent example is the Canadian Chinese film star Anastasia Lin, who was banned from entering China after speaking against the regime’s human rights violations. In 2015, she tried to enter the country for the 65th Miss World pageant, flying first to Hong Kong and then attempting to board a plane to Sanya only to be barred from boarding.
Since the American film industry aims to profit from China’s large entertainment market, actors that speak out against Chinese human rights violations become less employable. Furthermore, film producers are starting to self-censor. In other words, they are producing films that will not anger Chinese officials.
For a while now, the American film industry has avoided sensitive topics such as the Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen protests. Paramount Pictures removed a scene where the characters speculated the virus had originated from China in World War Z (2013). In another film, Pixels (2015), Sony cut a scene where the Great Wall caught on fire during the alien invasion. These edits show how the rise of China’s political and economic power is affecting the West.
After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, many expected the country to become less authoritarian and more liberal. Today, Western countries and companies are now adjusting their media endeavours to appease the Chinese government and take advantage of the profits from its growing market.
Any country’s censorship attempt should be stopped or followed by sanctions from other nations, primarily when censorships affect the artist’s views or intentions. In Mulan’s case, the film director’s intention was altered due to China’s censorship practices. To allow a country to have control over censorship is the first step toward the indoctrination of the population, leading to the suppression of criticism. Filmmakers and artists should not be required to appease a country’s political leadership.
Art is a fundamental form of expression and criticism. However, hate speech or anything that encourages violence toward a group of people based on their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation should be avoided and judged by the general population.
On June 30, 2020, following the imposition of the Draconian-like laws in Hong Kong, it became clear that Chinese officials are tightening their control, and censorship will not be relaxed anytime soon. The laws defined criminal acts like secession and subversion in vague terms, which made it easier to criminalize speeches and protests.
Now is the time that corporations, and the general public, recognize their duty to uphold fundamental and universal human rights and freedoms, especially for those who are oppressed.