By Anne Jiang ’23
The fervent excitement following the casting of Chinese actress Liu Yifei as the titular character in Disney’s 2020 live action remake of Mulan was short-lived. When Liu, who goes by Crystal in the English-speaking world, was first cast, the Asian community around the world was relieved at the casting of a Chinese woman in an industry where Asian characters are often portrayed by non-Asian actors and where Asian women are given one-dimensional and stereotypical characters to portray. However, this excitement waned quickly after Liu shared a controversial social media post regarding the Hong Kong protests.
As of October 2019, Hong Kong has been embroiled in turmoil for four months. This was sparked after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam brought forth a bill allowing for criminal extraditions to China. Hong Kong has essentially been operating under its own democratic government since it was transferred back to China from Great Britain in 1997 in a situation termed “Two Systems, One Country”. The mainland Chinese government, in contrast, is profoundly undemocratic, making “Two Systems, One Country” unsustainable, as evidenced by the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong The conflict has now become prominent yet again, as the citizens of Hong Kong feel that their compatriots should not be tried by a government so deeply contrarian to its own. Citizens of Hong Kong feel that this is an attempt by China to gain more control over their previously democratic and liberal government system. An enormous wave of violent protests ensued in Hong Kong, followed by even more violent retaliation from the Hong Kong police. Though justified by the Chinese government as necessary against what they call terrorist attacks at the hands of the Hong Kong citizens, the use of force by police has been condemned by the United Nations human rights office and Amnesty International.
Liu Yifei, whose career is based primarily in China, announced on social media in August of 2019 that she supports the Hong Kong police. Because of this, she was heavily criticized in the Western world for using her platform to support police brutality and speak out against democracy. Since the bulk of her Western fame comes from her role in Mulan, social media users quickly began circulating the hashtag #BoycottMulan, asking viewers to boycott the Disney film in order to denounce Liu’s actions. At the recent D23 convention, Disney’s annual fan and insider convention in Anaheim, Liu was curiously absent despite stars of upcoming movies frequently making appearances to build press attention.
Though it is easy to “cancel” Liu as a public figure and Disney’s Mulan along with her over this scandal, netizens should engage in some critical thinking about the context and intent behind Liu’s show of support. She exists in a completely different cultural and political context than the Western world. Her support for the Chinese government is not at all an anomaly amongst Chinese entertainers. Protesting the government is hugely detrimental for figures, like Liu, who find that the bulk of their income and support comes from the mainland. The Chinese government wields incredible power against its political enemies. Historically, the Communist Party has banned works by media stars who speak out against them, or completely blacklisted anything related to them in the Chinese market. This could perhaps be one of the better case scenarios. Other prominent protestors have been exiled from the country or placed under house arrest. Most other Chinese actors have either vocally supported the government or declined to comment at all. Liu just happens to have received an unusually large amount of backlash for this due to her recent entry into our Western sphere of knowledge. In addition, though we are able to be highly critical of the Chinese government, the Chinese government’s extreme propaganda distribution and censorship of information means that many mainland Chinese citizens are not receiving the truth about police brutality in Hong Kong. Because her career largely relies on her Chinese fan base, Liu’s livelihood also hinges on not alienating this base by speaking out against the Communist party. Her post was well-accepted by this Chinese base and was liked thousands of times. Support also came in the form of a #supportmulan movement, albeit some of these hashtags were created by nationalist spam bots. So much of the situation in mainland China surrounding Liu Yifei and support for the government in general is unclear due to the Communist Party’s knack for creating their own narrative and obscuring the true facts to the point where they are unrecognizable. It’s almost impossible to know the true level of support for the Hong Kong police in the mainland because dissenters either lie so as to avoid repercussions or are obscured or erased by the Chinese government.
Because of this, we should perhaps not be too quick to judge Liu Yifei. There is no way of knowing whether or not her words indicate her genuine support for police brutality or whether she is just one of the millions just trying to remain untouched by an oppressive 1984-esque government. It may not be fair for us to expect Nobel Peace Prize-level bravery and resistance from all, nor should it be a standard for entertainers to risk their professional lives to make a statement. The burden of resistance should not fall on Liu Yifei’s shoulders, no matter how it is seen as ideal from our Western perspective for all people to be morally righteous and martyr themselves for the sake of the greater good.