Detainees Endure Forced Labor in Xinjiang Region Where Disney Filmed Mulan

uyghur-mulan-poster-bus-stop-sept-2020-crop.jpg A man walks past a poster of the Disney movie 'Mulan' at a bus stop in Beijing, Sept. 10, 2020.

Detainees at an internment camp in an area of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where Disney shot part of its blockbuster film Mulan, are being subjected to forced labor making socks and crushing gravel, according to a local official.

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+ on Sept. 4.

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.

Disney also thanked the Turpan (in Chinese, Tulufan) prefectural 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 learned from local police officers that as many as eight camps are in operation within the prefecture’s boundaries, despite claims in Paris earlier this month by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that all those sent to camps in the XUAR have been released and placed in employment.

A source who is familiar with the situation in Turpan, but declined to be named for fear of reprisal, told RFA that authorities sent many residents to one of the camps outside of Turpan city in 2017 as part of what they initially termed a “15-day training session” that was to be completed at the end of China’s Oct. 18-25 19th Party Congress held in Beijing that year.

However, families of the detainees were later told that, because the “training” had resulted in a “positive effect on social stability,” those at the camp would remain there for the foreseeable future, according to the source. By the end of 2017, camp authorities had begun building factories inside the camp and detainees were made to wear color-coded uniforms that classified them according to their so-called “crimes,” the source said.

No salaries provided

When pressed for details about the camp, the political commissar of the Chengzhen District Police Station, in Turpan’s Toksun (Tuokexun) county, told RFA that the camp, which is the prefecture’s largest, is located “outside of Turpan city,” without elaborating.

But a Uyghur police officer in the seat of Toksun county, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that the camp is known as the No. 4 Training Center, located in the desert along the highway linking the county to Turpan city, and houses detainees who are forced to labor in factories built within the walls of the complex.

There is nothing there but a training school—it’s six to 10 kilometers (four to six miles) outside of [Turpan] city center … in the middle of the desert,” he said.

“It’s still there in operation. Right now, there are factories built inside there and they are manufacturing socks and household items. There is also a gravel factory inside. I was told that some are working in the gravel factory and others are working in the sock factory.”

The officer said he was unsure of how many buildings exist within the complex because he is not permitted to enter but claimed there are “numerous” structures there.

“No one from the outside is allowed in for security reasons,” he said.

When asked whether detainees are provided salaries for the work they do, the officer said, “no, not yet.”

Those who have been accused of more serious “crimes” are taken to work at the Zhongtai Yanhua Gurong Cement Factory at 6:00 a.m. each morning and returned to the camp at 8:00 p.m.

“It’s in Toksun’s Awghuy village, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside of the county center,” he said.

“I don’t know how many people work there but there are a lot of them.”

Forced labor scheme

Reports of the forced labor conditions in Turpan come amid indications that China is increasingly relocating some inmates of its three-year-old internment camp program that has drawn international condemnation and U.S. sanctions, sending many to work in factories across China and arbitrarily sentencing others to prison terms without trials.

Investigations by RFA have found that former detainees placed in forced and coerced labor schemes following their detention are regularly required to surrender part of their pay to camp administrators. In some cases, they are housed in dormitories on their workplace campuses and only permitted to visit their families at home as little as once a month.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced new customs actions to block imports of hair, apparel, and cotton products believed to be produced with forced labor by three entities from Xinjiang, as well as computer parts produced by one from eastern China’s Anhui province.

In a message posted to Twitter that day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China’s “immoral use of forced labor,” which he said “is at odds with American values.”

“We won't tolerate products exported to the U.S. made on the backs of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups across China,” he wrote.

Mulan backlash

Disney has faced significant backlash, including a growing call to boycott Mulan, over its decision to film in the XUAR despite ongoing rights abuses there, as well as for thanking entities linked to mass incarceration in the region.

Last week, the co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts led 17 other U.S. lawmakers in writing an open letter to Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek, demanding clarification on the company’s cooperation with XUAR agencies.

Globally, Mulan has earned U.S. $37.6 million to date at the box office. The film, which has faced tough reviews in China for what critics say are poor action scenes and its deviation from the plot of the original animated feature, endured a disappointing debut of only U.S. $23.2 million.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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