Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar victory should have been received with jubilation in China, the country of her birth. On Sunday evening she was the first Chinese woman and woman of color to be recognized as the best director for “Nomadland”, which also took home the award for the best picture.
Instead, the Chinese government imposed a virtual news blackout and the censors tried to contain or stop discussion of the award on social media.
Chinese state news media, which usually want to celebrate the recognition of their citizens on the world stage, barely mentioned the Oscars, let alone Ms. Zhao. Chinese social media platforms raced to delete or restrict the distribution of articles and posts about the ceremony and Ms. Zhao, forcing many internet users and fans to use homonyms and puns to evade censorship.
No reason was given for the suppression, although Ms. Zhao was recently the target of a nationalist backlash on remarks she made about China in the past.
Hung Huang, a writer in Beijing, said the blackout on the state news media was the latest symptom of the recent escalation in tensions between the US and China.
“People should celebrate – both Americans who pay tribute to her as a film director and Chinese for one of them winning a very prestigious international award,” said Ms. Hung. “But the politics of US-China relations seems to be filtered down to cultural and artistic circles, which is a shame.”
On Monday afternoon, the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, broke the silence to urge Ms. Zhao to “act as a mediator” between China and the United States and “avoid being a point of friction.”
“We hope that it can continue to mature,” wrote the newspaper in an editorial that was only published in English.
Although some posts about Ms. Zhao’s success largely made it through the filters, the censors made it clear that the topic was taboo. When searching on Weibo, a popular social media platform, for the hashtag “Chloé Zhao wins the Oscar for best director”, only the message was returned: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and guidelines, the page was not found.”
Among the many posts that were deleted on Weibo were those expressing frustration over the attacks on Ms. Zhao.
“At a time when we should celebrate Chloé Zhao, who spoke about the influence of Chinese culture on their lives, there are still some people who are careful to distance themselves from her and her Chinese identity,” wrote a user on Weibo in a post that later disappeared. “I think this phenomenon is not good at all.”
The controversy that caught Ms. Zhao last month centered on remarks she made to an American film magazine in 2013, in which she criticized China as a place “where there are lies everywhere.”
Nationalist trolls had also settled in another, more recent interview in which Ms. Zhao, who grew up partly in the US and now lives there, was quoted as saying, “The US is now ultimately my country.” (The Australian website who later interviewed her said that she misquoted Ms. Zhao and that she actually said “not my country.”)
April 26, 2021 at 12:32 AM ET
After last month’s riot, social media searches for hashtags related to “Nomadland” in Chinese were blocked and Chinese-language promotional materials disappeared. Although the film, a sensitive portrait of the lives of wandering Americans, was due to be released in China last week, there were no screenings in theaters as of Monday.
The Oscars also came under fire last month for the nomination of “Do Not Split,” a film about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019, for Best Documentary Short. The Global Times said at the time that the documentary “has no artistry and is full of biased political positions”.
Not long after, it was reported that broadcasters in mainland China and Hong Kong were not broadcasting the Oscars for the first time in decades. (One of them, TVB, a Hong Kong broadcaster, said the decision was commercial.)
“Do Not Split” lost to “Colette”, a film about a French resistance member visiting a concentration camp where her brother died. His nomination alone has already contributed to raising awareness of China’s actions in Hong Kong, said Anders Hammer, the director of the documentary, in an interview before the awards.
“The ironic thing is that this censorship and the measures taken in Beijing and also in Hong Kong have paid much more attention to our documentary and have also paid much more attention to the main theme of our documentary, namely the disappearance of fundamental democratic rights in Hong Kong,” said Mr . Hammer.
Chinese reporters working for state-controlled news agencies were ordered not to cover the awards weeks ago, two Beijing-based news agencies said on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.
On Monday afternoon, there was no mention of the Oscars in the entertainment section of the People’s Daily flagship website. Instead, the top stories included a report on rural tourism in China and another on World Tai Chi Day in Malta.
But Ms. Zhao’s fans were not put off by the censorship. On social media, they resorted to tactics that are now familiar to many Chinese Internet users: blurring the names of Ms. Zhao and the film, writing them backwards, flipping pictures, or adding slashes or exclamation marks between Chinese characters.
In her posts, many people praised Ms. Zhao’s acceptance speech, in which she said she had “been thinking a lot lately about how to move on when things get difficult”. As an inspiration, she said she often looked at a line from a classic 13th century text that she had memorized as a child in China: “People at birth are naturally good.”
The line found resonance with many Chinese who had also learned these texts by heart.
“It’s so hard to describe how I felt hearing her say these six Beijing-accented characters on stage,” wrote one user. “It may not be my classic favorite phrase – I would say I don’t even really agree – but at that moment I was crying.”
For many observers, the censorship was a missed opportunity for the Chinese government, which has long sought to replicate Hollywood’s success in projecting American soft power around the world.
“The way she drew on her Chinese heritage in overcoming difficulties is inspiring,” said Raymond Zhou, an independent film critic from Beijing. “It is sad that it has been massively misunderstood due to a series of intercultural events.”
Given the political sensitivity of the subject, he declined to say more, only adding that “her work speaks for itself”.
Austin Ramzy and Joy Dong reported from Hong Kong. Claire Fu contributed to the research.