Facebook Twitter

No tolerance for real Mulan in ‘90s China

SHARE No tolerance for real Mulan in ‘90s China

Touring a Motorola plant here, I find myself thinking about "Mulan."

The Motorola plant is modern. Very. Vast, gleaming work-spaces. Clean. Bright. About as far from a sweatshop as Tianjin is from Cleveland.At long tables, dozens and dozens of Chinese women are assembling pagers. It's close work, delicate, difficult. Their fingers fly.

Motorola wants to show the best and the brightest of its Chinese plants to an American reporter. The company believes it makes good business sense to pay better wages, to provide better working conditions, for more and more Chinese employees.

Not all factories in China are thus. Human rights organizations say that some of the worst working conditions in the world today are found in China. Cramped, unsanitary, low-paying - and the very worst are literally slave-labor camps.

What's this got to do with "Mulan"?

Well, the movie's heroine - Mulan herself - is Chinese. She looks Chinese. So do her friends.

No other leading character in a Disney cartoon feature has been or looked Chinese. Only recently (with films such as "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas") did leading characters begin to look anything other than white Anglo-Saxon - sometimes even when they were ducks or rabbits.

Cultural scholars tell us it's empowering to see a hero who looks like you.

You don't have to see "Mulan" to grasp the significance of this. All you need to do is look at the toys. Across China today, workers are making "Mulan" toys - figures that look like Chinese people.

These days, a great percentage of Disney-licensed products are made in China. A quick tour of a Disney store near my office confirms that most of the "Mulan" products for sale there were made in China.

By themselves, big international companies such as Motorola and Disney can't bring political rights to China. However, they are trying to improve working conditions in that country, either by building glistening facilities such as Motorola's or else by monitoring the facilities of their licensees, as Disney does.

But in the movies, Mulan doesn't wait for other people to solve her problems. She tackles them herself.

It's possible Chinese workers will never see the movie (although Disney is currently negotiating with the Chinese government to release the film soon). So they may not see what a young Chinese girl can do - in the movies, if not under the current regime.

Mulan breaks all the rules, deceives her government, disguises herself as a soldier and saves her people in wartime. Mulan is a heroine through exactly the kind of defiant independence that is NOT TOLERATED in China today.

Chinese workers may LOOK like Mulan, but they may never have the opportunity to ACT like her. In truth, looking AT her may be as much as they're ever able to do.

The Chinese government allows a limited amount of capitalism nowadays. It does not allow independence. It does not want real-life Mulans.

Yet, as I walk around the Motorola plant, I can see the face of Mulan on the faces of the women at work. The work is not easy. And if these women are capable of this work, what else might they achieve?

There's the potential here, for a story far more thrilling than anything in the movies. A different kind of cultural revolution.