In China, Disney's #BoycottMulan Problem May Only Be Growing

Walt Disney Studios
Crystal Liu in Disney's 'Mulan.'

As the star of its Chinese warrior epic sides with police amid growing pro-democracy protests, the company may be "dragged into" taking sides as a mass sit-in at Hong Kong Disneyland is considered.

On Aug. 14, Crystal Liu, star of Disney's upcoming live-action Mulan, weighed in on Hong Kong's police crackdown of pro-democracy protesters. "I support Hong Kong's police, you can beat me up now," she wrote to her 65 million followers on social media platform Weibo, adding the hashtag "IAlsoSupportTheHongKongPolice," with heart and arm-flexing emojis.

Backlash, and talk of a boycott of Mulan, greeted Liu's post, with many pointing to the various international organizations that have accused the Hong Kong police of brutality and excessive force. And while Disney has chosen to remain silent so far, the problem may not go away any time soon for the studio, whose 10 tentpoles in the past year have earned 12 percent of their $8.85 billion in grosses from China. On a huge film like Avengers: Endgame, which became the all-time box-office champ with $2.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales, China accounted for a stunning 22 percent of that total.

"Disney can't support the protesters because their business in China is too important," notes Stanley Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in the Chinese entertainment industry. "But they obviously can't be seen as pandering too much to China either, because that could backfire as well, depending on how the situation in Hong Kong unfolds."

The studio's studied silence at the least risks tainting the idealism of its brand and inflaming the international #BoycottMulan campaign. But if Disney instead distances itself from its star's statement, it will almost certainly invoke the ire of China's Communist Party authorities, who view control over Hong Kong as one their most urgent concerns. 

A source close to Liu, 31, says she is being unfairly singled out given that other Chinese celebrities have voiced support for Beijing over the Hong Kong protest movement, including the city's own Jackie Chan and Tony Leung Ka-fai. Though protesters bristle at all stars who parrot an autocratic government's talking points, they have an ideal wedge with Liu as the lead of the upcoming global tentpole Mulan — about a young Chinese female fighter of injustice — that Disney will release March 27.

The studio's apparent decision to try to duck the difficult PR dilemma has put it in the awkward spot of aligning its interests with Beijing and the Hong Kong government, both of which seem to be hoping that the protesters will lose their nerve.

And yet, it's not as if Disney CEO Bob Iger hasn't taken a stance on hot-button political topics before. He stepped down from President Trump’s business advisory council in response to the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, calling the decision “a matter of principle.” Iger also said “I rather doubt [Disney] will” continue shooting in Georgia after the state passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

The Hong Kong movement's determination not to simply fade away was on display Aug. 18, when an estimated 1.7 million protesters braved heavy rain for a peaceful procession through the heart of the city. Protesters are considering staging a mass sit-in at Hong Kong Disneyland next, possibly as soon as Aug. 24. (Some are concerned that the theme park's location — on a remote corner of Hong Kong's Lantau Island — could leave protestors cornered and vulnerable to mass arrests.)

Should they forge ahead — and should police respond — Disney may not have the luxury of avoiding comment if global newscasts show tear gas wafting over Hong Kong Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle. "If things polarize even further in Hong Kong and China resorts to even greater violence to assert its authority, it will become much harder for [Disney] not to get dragged into it," adds Rosen, noting that further comments from Liu could also inflame tensions. "It's not unthinkable that the release date for Mulan could have to be moved beyond March 2020."

At the very least, Beijing's refusal to compromise an inch combined with the protestors' unflagging conviction has left even the most informed observers uncertain of how the standoff could conceivably unwind. Thus, Hong Kong's pro-democracy cause could very well continue to be a major news item come early 2020, when Mulan launches its worldwide marketing campaign — with star Crystal Liu front and center, facing the press gauntlet. 

Karen Chu contributed reporting.

This story appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.