Her Father in Prison, Uighur Activist Wants Disney to Apologize for ‘Mulan’

Jewher Ilham grew up in Beijing, the daughter of economics professor and Uighur human-rights activist Ilham Tohti. She was accompanying him on a teaching assignment to Indiana in 2013 when they were stopped at the airport by Chinese authorities.

Her father was barred from leaving, but he insisted his teenage daughter go anyway. It was the last time she saw him in person. Today, Tohti is serving a life sentence onseparatism-related charges, according to the U.S. State Dept. No one in the family has spoken to him for three years, she said.

Now 26 and living in the U.S., Jewher Ilham serves as a Uighur human-rights fellow for the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. She spoke to Bloomberg News about the newWalt Disney Co. film “Mulan,” which was partly shot in the Xinjiang region of China, and about how U.S. companies should conduct business in that country.

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group in Central Asia and are native to the Xinjiang region of China.

Following a series of terrorist attacks on civilians in 2013, China set up a vast security state in Xinjiang along with mass internment camps, which United Nations experts have said could hold as many as one million Uighurs. China this week called them “vocational education and training” centers that have helped rid Xinjiang of terrorist attacks for about three years now. Human-rights groups have documented physical and psychological abuse in the camps.

Disney Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy told investors Thursday that “Mulan” was filmed mostly in New Zealand and that some 20 locations in China were used “in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country.” She also said filming in China requires approval from the government and it’s common “to acknowledge in a film’s credits the national and local governments that allowed you to film there.”

The discussion with Ilham was edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is it so bad that Disney shot part of “Mulan” in Xinjiang?

So they were thinking of quitting filming in Georgia because of the abortion law. I believe they should have boycotted the Uighur region because we all know that one of the worst human-rights abuses is taking place there. Right now, there are over 1 million people locked up in concentration camps or forced labor camps, including my dad.

Is it possible Disney just didn’t know about this issue when filming there?

I won’t take it if Disney claimed that they never heard of the crisis or the persecution. It’s literally been on the news everywhere. In the U.S., they’ve been putting on sanctions.

What would you like to see Disney do now?

It would be actually great if Disney can publicly first acknowledge the existence of those concentration, reeducation, forced-labor camps, whatever you call them, and that it’s wrong. I hope they can publicly condemn it. And they can admit that filming there was wrong.

We are not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s never too late, if you want to change, to apologize for them. The money, the profits they got from filming there, they could use part of them or even all of them to help Uighur refugees or their families.

What about other U.S. companies — they can’t just stop doing business in such a large country?

I completely understand that they’re trying to earn money, especially, you know, having the promise of access to the massive Chinese market. I think they should be very firm on their contracts, on their regulations, and they should have investigators, teams that go in. It would be really useful if those big companies, those big brands or factories, if they still want to function in China, at least try to find a way they can make those workers’ lives better.

As you know, this is a remake of the 1998 animated version of “Mulan.” Were you a fan of Disney movies growing up?

Oh, yes. Actually the original “Mulan” was one of my favorites. It’s actually my favorite. I loved them a lot. “Beauty and the Beast.” I was really, really excited about “Mulan” becoming a real film. And I was excited about Liu Yifei, the leading actress. Growing up, I watched her TV shows and movies. I was quite excited, until I saw her statement [supporting Hong Kong police over pro-democracy protesters last year].

Do you have other family in the U.S. now? Has anybody been able to come out?

Everyone in my family is in China. Everyone.

And you don’t feel safe going back at this point?

I’m sure at the airport, I would be covered with a black sack on my head and shackled on my wrists. I’m not even going to be surprised with that.

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