Mulan, Boycotts, and Disney+

If social media mentions alone were a predictor of box office success, Disney’s live-action Mulan would take the top spot — particularly in a time when many movie theaters across the world are shut down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But that’s not what happened. After the film hit Disney+ last week, the hashtag #BoycottMulan started trending on Twitter. This was in response to an incident from the previous year in which the film’s lead star, Liu Yifei, had voiced support for the Hong Kong police at a time when Hong Kongers were protesting a suggested extradition policy that would subject residents to mainland China’s legal system. The protests carry on today. “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now,” Liu had stated on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms, adding in English “What a shame for Hong Kong.”

Mulan is not Disney’s moonshot attempt at gaining a foothold in China. The country has had a long and ongoing relationship with Disney, from the company’s theatrical success to its Parks operations. Shanghai Disneyland park had 11.8 millions guests in 2018 alone, and contributes around $1bn in revenue and $50m in operating profit to Disney every year.

In The Greatest Firewall, I described the trade-off that Western companies face by operating in China as either “openness and competitiveness, or centralization and control.” While Disney has largely tried to stay out of the political fray, it bears noting that decisions made on set naturally reflect on corporate values; from the Washington Post:

Disney filmed “Mulan” in regions across China (among other locations). In the credits, Disney offers a special thanks to more than a dozen Chinese institutions that helped with the film. These include four Chinese Communist Party propaganda departments in the region of Xinjiang as well as the Public Security Bureau of the city of Turpan in the same region — organizations that are facilitating crimes against humanity. It’s sufficiently astonishing that it bears repeating: Disney has thanked four propaganda departments and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China that is the site of one of the world’s worst human rights abuses happening today.

Turpan, a city in eastern Xinjiang province, is reportedly home to a slew of re-education camps in which Uyghurs, a Muslim-minority ethnic group, were detained; at least one million Uyghurs are estimated to have been held in internment camps across the entire province. Not only was Mulan shot in several locations in the region, but producers worked in close collaboration with CCP government entities.

Although Disney has often touted its apolitical credentials, partnerships like these make claims of neutrality difficult to take seriously. In a roundtable discussion with the Hollywood Reporter back in February, Disney’s co-chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Alan Horn, reiterated this:

Belloni: Does it bother you that the movies can’t offend China?

Horn: No, I mean, there are places all over the world, as you say… where it’s not hard to offend somebody somewhere, and I didn’t say they can’t. They did. […] We’re in the movie business and we’re making movies that are designed to be seen by an appreciative (hopefully) audience that will enjoy our movie. It’s the “entertainment” industry. I want them to go out and see our movie and have a good time. We don’t wish to be political, and to get dragged into a political discussion, I would argue, is inherently unfair. It’s not what we… we’re not politicians. It’s not what we do. We’re not a governmental organization. We’re making movies.

But making quality films that embody Disney’s values should not negate the downsides of the production process. Horn’s gamble is that wider representation in more markets will eventually drown out noises of dissent. This veers dangerously close to complacency, even if the Xinjiang controversy is removed from the equation.

Voicing concerns

In his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, American economist Albert Hirschman argued that there were three options that workers or consumers who are dealing with an unsatisfactory situation might face: to abandon ship (“exit”), express dissatisfaction (“voice”), or tolerate the intolerable (“loyalty”). In the latter case, while a situation is unsatisfactory, it may still be the preferred route when confronted with an undesirable alternative, like losing a job or influence.

I find this framework helpful as a backdrop to Disney’s Mulan and the firm’s broader dealings in China. With the boycotts of Mulan, consumers are expressing dissatisfaction with the company, with the intent to change (or outright condemn) their decision-making. Hirschman’s definition of “voice” seems to align with this:

To resort to voice, rather than exit, is for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies, and outputs of the firm from which one buys or of the organization to which one belongs. Voice is here defined as an attempt at all to change, rather than to escape from, an objectionable state of affairs, whether through individual or collective petition to the management directly in charge, through appeal to a higher authority with the intention of forcing a change in management, or through various types of actions and protests including those that are meant to mobilize public opinion.

But in contrast with exit, which is viewed as a binary choice (loyalty or desertion), voice is such a nebulous concept because it has levels, and comprises anything from a disgruntled whimper to a worker strike. Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, fell somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, blasting Mulan in response to “what the lead actors stand for” and which organizations Disney chose to partner with.

As Mulan is released across China today, executives at Disney should consider whether the cost was worth it. Disney’s CFO, Christine McCarthy, noted that the uproar around the film has created “a lot of issues,” and attempted to downplay the bad publicity by stating that Mulan was almost entirely shot in New Zealand. McCarthy said that “in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country,” it was necessary to shoot in China. The company’s crediting of CCP agencies was dismissed as common practice.

Hirschman describes boycotts as a unique phenomenon “on the border line between voice and exit,” just like the threat of exit. Any consumer would opt for voice, Hirschman argues, so long as they can afford the cost. Workers are faced with a more salient dilemma, as they balance tolerating a violation in their purported principles over the prospect of losing their job. In this case, boycotts provide a just middle ground; from Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

Through boycott, exit is actually consummated rather than just threatened; but it is undertaken for the specific and explicit purpose of achieving a change of policy on the part of the boycott of organization and is therefore a true hybrid of the two mechanisms. The threat of exit as an instrument of voice is here replaced by its mirror image, the promise of re-entry: for it is understood that the member-customer will return to the fold in case certain conditions which have led to the boycott are remedied.

Boycott is often a weapon of customers who do not have, at least at the time of the boycott, an alternative source of supply for the goods or services they are ordinarily buying from the boycotted firm or organization, but who can do temporarily without them. It is thus a temporary exit without corresponding entry elsewhere and is costly to both sides, much like a strike. In this respect also it combines characteristics of exit, which causes losses to the firm or organization, with those of voice, which is costly in time and money for the member-customers.

More recently, another trend has emerged in response to boycotts: buycotting. These so-called “anti-boycotts” are defined as excessively buying a particular product or brand in retaliation to a consumer boycott — in short, an economic counter-protest. The objective of these buycotts is to prevent the boycotted organization from backing down on whatever practice, policy, or output caused the initial boycott.

It’s important to note here that Hirschman considers voice not in the context of venting per se, but as a proactive measure to change policies or practices. Grumblings around Mulan on Twitter may not always fit this definition, with some hoping for repercussions for Disney but not a shift in output. In the case of Disney, there are many different ways consumers can opt for voice while remaining proactive in their intent:

  • Not watching Mulan. I argued in The Golden Age of Speech that consumer boycotts are one of the oldest forms of protected speech, and can be an effective pushback or deterrent to corporate practices or policies. As Mulan is a standalone film on Disney+ ($30 in addition to a standard subscription), boycotting it while remaining a subscriber would indicate that the dissatisfaction stems from the output of one film.
  • Cancelling their Disney+ subscription. When a practice is deemed intolerable by a consumer, one of the most effective means of expression is monetary. At scale, the loss of subscribers would send a clear signal to Disney’s executives that its practices need to change.
  • Buycotting. Consumers who disapprove of a particular boycott can opt to counter them by supporting the boycotted organization through financial means or otherwise. Although the Mulan boycott has made headlines, the buzz around the film has brought a surge in new sign-ups and a 68% increase in downloads on Disney+. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of “buycotting” however — in many cases, consumers just don’t care.
  • Threatening retaliation. Consumers can raise awareness of corporate practices by targeting third-party advertisers, as was the case with the Facebook boycotts in late June. Likewise, Disney’s own employees can threaten to opt for the “exit” route. Such threats would be more effective when they come from employees with more influence in the organization.
  • Resignation. If all else fails, workers can voice their concerns with the only alternative: to resign (exit).

It’s tempting to look at Mulan’s global success and attribute it in part to buycotting within China, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Ahead of the wider release in China on September 11th, pirated copies of the film have begun circulating in large numbers, and Mulan is currently rated 4.7 out of 10 on the Chinese review site Douban. After last year’s surge of support for Liu Yifei across mainland China, Disney might have felt validated — but this may not prove enough to counter the negative reviews or how the film handles certain cultural elements.

Geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China may also be a contributing factor in how the film performs. In response to the Xinjiang controversy, Chinese officials have been asking state media not to report about Mulan’s opening, giving no reason for the notice. The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the CCP’s People’s Daily, lamented attacks on Mulan, calling the backlash to the film “another manifestation of the extreme ideologies regarding China among U.S. public opinion” — moreover, it argues that “the truth-seeking spirit of American public opinion has short-circuited on Xinjiang-related issues.”

The Mulan debacle has shown that the “one company, two systems” mentality for operating in China just doesn’t work. Disney cannot decouple their purported values and principles (including community, optimism, and decency) from their actions, lest they water them down altogether. It was this set of values which assured loyalty from Disney’s consumer base — it may be able to tolerate the intolerable, for now.

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