Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is the second film directed by a woman to win a best picture Oscar, while she is the first woman of colour and second woman ever to win the best director gong.
But the country in which Beijing-born Zhao was raised has been largely silent on her historic Oscar success. As of Monday afternoon, China’s two main state media outlets, CCTV and Xinhua, had not reported Zhao’s unprecedented award haul in Hollywood. Meanwhile, a post by a film magazine announcing Zhao’s win on Weibo, China’s second largest social media site, was censored soon after it appeared on Monday morning.
One private Chinese media site, 163.com, did mention the win, but invoked geopolitics to claim that Zhao is “the second Chinese filmmaker to win the best director Oscar, after Ang Lee,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Lee was born in Taiwan, which became the seat of the Republic of China that broke away from the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — though China still claims sovereignty over the nation.
Shunned for alleged China criticism
Nomadland, a recession-era tale of a middle-aged woman forced to live out of a van on the US West Coast, also picked up the best actress Oscar for Frances McDormand.
After Zhao’s film received six Oscar nominations in March, comments made by the director in 2013 in which she had criticised the People’s Republic as a “place of lies” caused a backlash in China. Nationalistic online “netizens” were especially outraged, calling her a “traitor.”
In early March, the Chinese state tabloid newspaper Global Times had praised Zhao as “China’s pride” after Nomadland won four Golden Globes. But since her 2013 comments surfaced, publicity material and references to Nomadland have been deleted across all Chinese media, according to various observers.
This censorship was born out when a livestream of the Academy Awards hosted in Shanghai hosted by an alumni of Zhao’s alma mater was shut down when his virtual private network (VPN) was blocked for two hours, according to Reuters.
Nonetheless, Global Times editor Hu Xijin tweeted congratulations to the outside world. (Twitter is banned in China.) “She is an excellent director,” he wrote. “As a Chinese born in Beijing striving in the US, the tense China-US ties may bring some troubles to her. Hopefully she will become more and more mature in handling those troubles.”
Struggling to beat the censors
Social media users have been posting about Zhao using “zt,” the initials of her full Chinese name, Zhao Ting. Searching for her name in Chinese on Weibo did not yield Oscar news but unrelated posts from early April.
The popular film app Douban has banned searches for Nomadland and “Zhao Ting,” telling users that “the search results could not be displayed in accordance to relevant laws and regulations.” Discussion threads about Zhao’s awards were also deleted from the app, as was a news article on WeChat, the largest messaging app in the country.
There was praise on the Chinese internet among individual bloggers for Zhao’s acceptance speech, in which she quoted a line from a 13th-century poem that is well-known by children in the country. “People at birth are inherently good,” Zhao said when translating the line.
Hong Kong also censors Oscar recognition
A documentary film about the Hong Kong democracy movement, Do Not Split, was also suppressed by Chinese authorities after it received an Oscar nomination last month.
Beijing had reportedly told mainland media outlets to either boycott or downplay the film awards ceremony. Then Hong Kong television network TVB, which had carried the Academy Awards telecast for more than 50 years, said it would not broadcast this year’s Oscars.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked by the German press agency dpa why social media posts on the topic of Zhao’s Oscar wins were partially deleted.
A spokesperson declined to comment, only saying that it was “not a diplomatic matter.”
Featured image: Chloe Zhao arrives at the 93rd Academy Awards, at Union Station, in Los Angeles, US, April 25, 2021. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Pool via Reuters.