Netflix’s “Three-Body Problem” has to figure out how to not be the next “Mulan”

High stakes.
High stakes.
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Think of it as the Xinjiang test.

Disney probably understands the consequences of failing to think about the repercussions of efforts to build its audience in China better than anyone. The company took a serious reputational hit over its $200 million live-action production of Mulan, which began drawing boycott calls last year when its lead actress Liu Yifei publicly expressed support for the Hong Kong police in the middle of the city’s protests. Those calls blew up this month, when it turned out the movie had scouted in and filmed in Xinjiang, and thanked public security officials in a region where an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims have been forcibly detained.

Now, just weeks after Netflix announced it had acquired the rights to The Three-Body Problem, a coup that could potentially create an epic hit and help build its brand in China, the US streaming giant is facing its first reputational challenge over the future production.

On Wednesday (Sept. 23), five Republican senators wrote a letter to Netflix citing a New Yorker interview by Three-Body author Liu Cixin, in which he appears to support China’s detentions of its Uyghur Muslim minority that many scholars and rights groups have called a crime against humanity, given credible reports of forced sterilizations and forced labor. China has said the camps are necessary to combat Islamic extremism.

For the profile last year, writer Jiayang Fan asked Liu what he thought about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs:

When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head.

The senators asked whether Netflix was aware of those remarks, and if so, how it justified proceeding with the adaptation, including inviting Liu to join as a consulting producer.

“Sadly, a number of U.S. companies continue to either actively or tacitly allow the normalization of, or apologism for, these crimes. The decision to produce an adaptation of Mr. Liu’s work can be viewed as such normalization,” the letter said said.

Netflix responded in a letter to the senators on Friday (Sept. 25) noting that Liu was the author of the books, not the creator of the show. “Mr. Liu’s comments are not reflective of the views of Netflix or of the show’s creators, nor are they part of the plot or themes of the show,” it said.

Liu couldn’t immediately be reached by Quartz for comment.

There may be lots of reasons to be cynical about the motives behind the letter to Netflix, including a looming US election where being “tough on China” will be a major talking point for the Trump campaign. And it’s an open question as to whether Liu could have said anything at all critical of China in the pages of a US publication. Nevertheless, the letter points to what has become a genuine challenge for the US entertainment industry: Can it work with Chinese creators, and tell Chinese stories, without accidentally promoting China’s nationalist propaganda or becoming complicit in rights abuses? And can it do all of those things without inviting an offended backlash out of China?

Hollywood’s track record hasn’t been great in this regard, especially as the clout of the Chinese box office and Chinese funding for movies has grown. Studios seem to steer clear of Tibet, once the topic of major movies such as Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. Last year, the Dreamworks movie Abominable showed a map featuring China’s controversial nine-dash-line in the South China Sea. Despite these compromises, these films haven’t done well in China, with Mulan criticized for failing to capture the essence of a story Chinese viewers feel strongly about.

Netflix isn’t offered in mainland China and so hasn’t yet racked up the reputation for complying with distasteful content diktats that Hollywood has. But it’s clearly interested in growing a future Chinese audience. It might be time, then, before it ends up at the heart of a Mulan-style firestorm, to figure out a thoughtful China policy rather than blunder along and find out far too late it’s become a vehicle for nationalist propaganda.

Update, Sept. 28: This story was updated with Netflix’s response to the letter.