Commentary: Did Chinese censors just cancel Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao's Nomadland?

Commentary: Did Chinese censors just cancel Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao's Nomadland?

Why were the Academy Awards show blocked in China? A nationalist backlash against Nomadland director Chloe Zhao isn’t quite it, says Professor Bo Zhiyue.

93rd Academy Awards - Press Room
Chloe Zhao, winner of the awards for best picture and director for Nomadland, poses in the press room at the Oscars on Apr 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (Photo: AP/Chris Pizzello)

WELLINGTON: Chloe Zhao (Zhang Ting in Chinese) has become a huge international movie icon.

She is the second woman and first Asian woman to win Best Director, at the 93rd Academy Award Ceremony for her film Nomadland.

This should have been a major victory for China when a 39-year-old Chinese woman shatters glass ceilings to win a total trail of 58 awards.

She should be the pride and joy of China, as a model of how the country’s top human talent are setting new global standards not only in tech but also in areas like the arts and film, often thought of as the cultural currency of advanced nations that have arrived.

However, news of her award has been blocked in China. Her film, initially scheduled for a limited release in China in late April, has also been banned.

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What’s going on? Ms Zhao evidently loves her home country.

In her acceptance speech, she said what kept her going when things got rough were lessons learnt as a child. While she was growing up as a Beijing girl, she recalled, she played a game with her father, memorising classic Chinese poems.

One line from a popular poem, the Three Character Classic (San Zi Jing), “people at birth are inherently good,” has been her belief growing up, she highlighted.

“I still truly believe in this philosophy today,” Ms Zhao said in her speech.

Despite Ms Zhao’s words, however, her win has subjected her to the madness of the Internet mob who dug into her past and found some comments from previous interviews that did not please them.

Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao is seen as the frontrunner for the best director Oscar for her road
Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao was seen as the frontrunner for the best director Oscar for her road movie Nomadland. (Photo: AFP/Charly TRIBALLEAU)

In particular, her interview by American movie journal The Filmmaker, where she was quoted as saying about growing up in China “there are lies everywhere”, has stoked controversy. 

Chinese netizens were also up in arms over an interview with an Australian news outlet where she was initially quoted in March after the Golden Globe awards as saying that the US was “now” her home country, even the story was later corrected to clarify she had said the US was “not” her home country.

But then what explains why people in China couldn’t even access the Academy Awards show via Virtual Private Network (VPN) on that day itself? Did Chinese censors foresee Ms Zhao might make other controversial remarks about China?

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It is unlikely that Chloe Zhao was the subject of censors.

It is more likely that the Academy Awards show was blocked because of a different film, Do Not Split, a 2020 American-Norwegian documentary short film directed by Anders Hammers about the Hong Kong protests.

Do Not Split’s nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 93rd Academy Award was announced in March.

Following its nomination, the Chinese government instructed local media not to broadcast the Oscars and to downplay the significance of the awards ceremony.

Anders Hammer, who directed "Do Not Split", has said the condemnation from Beijing has
Anders Hammer, who directed "Do Not Split", has said the condemnation from Beijing has "helped" his film bring attention to situation in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Jim Bennett)

Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), the largest free-to-air broadcaster in Hong Kong, announced it would not broadcast the Oscars for the first time in 52 years. It has broadcast the Oscars every year since 1969.

So Ms Zhao may simply be collateral damage from the Chinese government’s reaction to the documentary.

Of note, at a press conference on Monday (Apr 26), when Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked about whether Ms Zhao and her film have been censored in China, he simply replied, “what you raised is not a diplomatic issue.”

But this statement has been deleted from the press release of the day. Apparently, it is not politically correct to say that it is a diplomatic issue; nor is it politically correct to say that it is “not a diplomatic issue”. 

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An interpretation is that the Chinese government does not want to give the impression it has no geopolitical concerns about Ms Zhao’s comments.

Still, we can’t rule out censors blocking Ms Zhao’s film in China because of her acceptance speech.


The more disturbing take-away from this episode is not whether Ms Zhao has been the subject of concern for authorities but that censorship has become a norm in China.

It now seems applied extensively and injudiciously, when just last week, Wen Jiaobao, ex-premier who served 10 years in the penultimate appointment, received the same treatment for his eulogy for his mother.

It’s not just censorship being applied but also the careful manicured treatment of news to conform to a certain government narrative of the unquestioning authority and central position of the Chinese Communist Party’s core leader.

FILE PHOTO: China's Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, the head of China's
China's Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, the head of China's anti-corruption watchdog, talks to President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 3, 2016. (File photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)

Vice-President Wang Qishan’s appearance at the launch ceremony of the 20th Anniversary Retrospective Exhibition of the Boao Forum for Asia on Apr 19, for instance, was not reported on that day. It was a significant milestone, when the Boao Forum has been a vehicle for China to advance its views regarding international economic and geopolitical issues.

Yet there was scarcely any stories on Wang’s speech, not even one on the website of the Boao Forum for Asia 2021.

He was only mentioned in the news in a by-the-way manner the following day after he introduced President Xi Jinping as the keynote speaker for the Boao Forum for Asia 2021’s opening ceremony.

It is not clear how long this new wave of censorship would last.

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But many Chinese observers are hopeful that someday Chinese leaders will realise that in a globalised world, censorship is not only pointless but also counterproductive.

Such management of the Chinese media cannot stop the flow of information from outside of the country. If anything, their outdated, naive application gives censors a bad reputation for suppressing freedom of speech.

Professor Bo Zhiyue is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services to government leaders and CEOs of multinational corporations.

Source: CNA/sl