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As many as 8 internment camps operating in Xinjiang region where Disney filmed ‘Mulan’

Police checkpoint in Xinjiang Uyghur autonomy district (农业学大寨/WikiCommons)
September 13, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

As many as eight internment camps may be operating in Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan), local police said, as calls to boycott a Disney film shot partly in the ancient Silk Road City grew Friday, citing its links to entities responsible for repressing Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Disney released its U.S. $200 million live-action version of the popular 1998 animated film “Mulan” about a young woman who pretends to be a man so that she can join the military on behalf of her sick father on its streaming platform Disney+ over the weekend. The film opened in Chinese theaters on Friday.

In the credits of the long-awaited remake, the company thanks several entities known to have contributed to Beijing’s repressive rule in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.

Among those thanked in the credits are the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda commission in the XUAR, which has sought to justify the camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” despite reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service which has found that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.

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Disney also thanked the Turpan branch of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which in July was sanctioned by the Trump administration for its role in abuses in the region.

Turpan, where the film was shot in part, is a prefecture-level city in eastern Xinjiang whose population of around 650,000 people is some 75 percent Uyghur. The ancient Silk Road city is known as being one of the earliest to have rolled out a campaign of “transformation through education” of Muslims, beginning in August 2013.

RFA recently spoke with police from the area who confirmed that several camps continue to operate in the city.

An officer from the Turpan Bazaar Police Department told RFA that as many as eight camps are in operation in the city, most of which are located in “the upper part of town”—about a 30-minute drive from his station.

“Some of them are located in different parts, such as Re-education School No. 1, Re-education School No. 2, and Re-education School No. 3, and so on,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

“I have heard there are altogether eight of them,” he added.

Another officer from Turpan told RFA he had worked in various camps in the city in recent years.

“I started working in the camps in November 2017 and I stopped in July this year,” he said.

“I stayed in three different camps—Re-education School No. 1, then School No. 5, and finally No. 6. Re-education School No. 1 is located in Xinzhan [the New Railway Station] and women work there. No. 5 and No. 6 schools are located in the Xinqu [New City district].”

According to the police officer, “there are normally 36 people in a cell” at each camp and detainees are “taken outside to get an hour of fresh air once a month.”

The officer said that because of the crowded conditions, “sometimes it takes more than a month.”

He also said “a dozen people died” during his five-month stint at Camp No. 5, although he did not provide details about the cause of the deaths.

Growing backlash

Meanwhile, Disney’s Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy acknowledged Thursday that anger over Mulan being filmed in the XUAR had caused “issues” for the company, according to a report by CNN.

Speaking at a Bank of America conference on Thursday, McCarthy said that while the majority of the film had been shot in New Zealand, Disney chose to film in parts of China “in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country … for this historically period piece drama.”

McCarthy said it was “common knowledge” that filming in China requires the permission of government publicity departments and said it is standard practice to acknowledge national and local governments in film credits.

“So, in our credits, that was recognized, both China as well as locations in New Zealand. And I would just leave it at that,” she said. “But that’s generated a lot of issues for us,” she added, without elaborating.

Mulan had already courted controversy after its star, Liu Yifei, made comments in August last year supporting Hong Kong’s police amid criticism of their use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators, prompting calls for a boycott.

Social media users, including some U.S. lawmakers, were quick to condemn Disney on Monday for shooting the film in the XUAR, furthering calls to avoid it through a campaign using the hashtag #boycottMulan.

Those calls grew through the week, including through a tweet on Friday by Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who noted that amid the furor, the hashtag “Mulan” appeared to have been disabled on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

“This should be a lesson for Disney: You can pour US$200 million into a project, hire pro-government actors, deny concentration camps’ existence, pander to Chinese nationalism — and STILL get screwed big time,” he tweeted, along with the boycott hashtag.

Chinese reception

On Friday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended Disney’s decision to thank the XUAR for “providing convenience” during a regular press briefing in Beijing and said that no government, organization or individual has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Zhao lauded actress Liu as “the contemporary Mulan” and “a true child of China.”

However, the film opened to a relatively cool reception from Chinese audiences Friday, with online ticketing platform Maoyan saying it had only taken in 46 million yuan (U.S. $6.73 million) at the box office by 8:00 p.m. local time—significantly lagging behind other blockbusters.

Reuters news agency reported that the film struggled with mixed reviews in China on its opening day, as well as curbs on cinemas due to the coronavirus pandemic and a government ban on major media coverage amid international calls for a boycott.

Chinese reviewers were less concerned with the political implications of Mulan than what they said was its deviation from the original story, subpar action scenes, and inaccurate historical depictions.

The film is currently rated 4.7 out of 10 on China’s popular social media site Douban.