The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to have a strange love-hate relationship with filmmaker Chloe Zhao, alternately praising her achievements and using its censorship powers to suppress all mention of her Oscar wins on Sunday.
It is hard to see why the CCP would decide to erase Zhao, who has not been a strident public critic of China’s authoritarian regime. It is much easier to understand the CCP’s desire to send Zhao, her American collaborators, and Hollywood a message about China’s increasing box-office clout, and Beijing’s willingness to use business interests as leverage to accomplish its political agenda. If a history-making Asian female director can suddenly become a non-person at the peak of her career, then no one is safe.
Zhao, 39, was born in Beijing under the name Zhao Ting. She emigrated to London when she was 14, attended a British boarding school, moved to Los Angeles for her last years of high school, and then attended film school in New York. Her first full-length film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, was released in 2015.
Zhao became the first Asian woman to win Best Director on Sunday for her third feature, Nomadland, which also won Best Picture and Best Actress for Frances McDormand – one of the few professional actors in a movie largely populated by real-life modern-day “nomads.”
The Chinese government aggressively censored all mentions of Zhao’s Academy Awards. State media refused to report on her achievement. Websites and social media hashtags that mentioned her were hunted down and deleted by CCP censors. Even livestreams of the Academy Awards were blocked to prevent Chinese citizens from seeing her win.
The heavy-handed blackout was exceptionally odd because only a few months ago, Chinese state media fulsomely praised Zhao for winning Best Director at the Golden Globes.
The CCP’s Global Times celebrated Zhao as an inspiration to young women around the world in March:
The hashtag “Zhao wins Golden Globe Awards” has earned 210 million views on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo as of Monday afternoon.
Many Chinese netizens hailed Zhao’s win as an inspiration for young women, particularly those pursuing the arts.
“We are so proud of Zhao Ting! She is making history by being the second woman to win in this category in the Golden Globe Awards’ entire 78-year history!” one Chinese netizen wrote on Sina Weibo.
“She and Jia Ling are telling the world that women also have talent as filmmakers,” another netizen posted on Sina Weibo.
The only criticism the Global Times could muster of Zhao seven weeks ago was some musing from Chinese film experts that Nomadland was a “pure U.S. story” that might be “hard to understand for Chinese audiences.”
“This movie is indeed very ‘American.’ For many Chinese audiences, they may see ‘RV Wandering’ as a ‘romantic’ poetic life, and so it may be difficult for them to understand the protagonist’s ‘hard’ and ‘homeless’ situation as well as the logic behind her thinking,” the Global Times wrote.
There was some speculation at the time, supported by remarks like those above, that the CCP liked Nomadland because they thought it made America look bad: a callous land of rapacious capitalism and hopeless poverty where people like the elderly part-time Amazon worker portrayed by McDormand were forced to live in their cars and defecate in buckets. This provided a useful political contrast with China’s boasts of eliminating poverty under the wise technocratic stewardship of dictator Xi Jinping.
For whatever it’s worth, the real-life nomads who appear in Nomadland are generally insistent that they chose their rambling lifestyle, and much of its drama revolves around the question if McDormand’s fictional character was forced to become a nomad or if she’s suffering from mental health issues. Furthermore, the nomads live what could be described as a communal lifestyle. Perhaps the CCP’s enthusiasm for the movie faded because it lost some of its value as Communist propaganda.
The CCP clearly changed its mind about Chloe Zhao with remarkable speed. Only a few days after celebrating her Golden Globes win, China’s “online sleuths” discovered a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine in which Zhao was mildly critical of the Chinese government.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Why are you doing this?” Zhao said of her budding independent film career in the interview. “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere. You felt like you were never going to be able to get out.”
“A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background,” she continued. “I went to England suddenly and relearned my history. Studying political science in a liberal arts college was a way for me to figure out what is real. Arm yourself with information, and then challenge that, too.”
The ability of Chinese nationalist “sleuths” to find this interview was all the more impressive because it had been deleted from the Internet in February and existed only in a few online archives.
Chinese “netizens” were also supposedly outraged by an interview Zhao gave in early March 2021 to Australia’s News.com in which she ostensibly referred to America as “now my country.” News.com later updated the interview to say they had quoted Zhao incorrectly, and she actually said America is “not my country.”
China’s authoritarian state and its million-censor army control everything said online, but they love to pretend their online attacks on Western commercial interests are “spontaneous” outbreaks of “grassroots anger.”
In that spirit, a tidal wave of nationalist outrage at Zhao for “slandering” China supposedly erupted in the early days of March even though, as the New York Times noted, Zhao and her film partners have gone out of their way to portray her as a true “Chinese national” – or at least an enlightened Citizen of the World with cherished Chinese heritage – who only happens to live, and makes money, in hideous America:
Ms. Zhao has spoken about what she sees as her shifting identity, a product, she said, of years spent moving around the world. She has described her Chinese heritage as part of that identity.
In a recent profile in New York magazine, Ms. Zhao referred to northerners in China as “my own people” and described herself as being “from China.” Global Times, a Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that Disney had said that Ms. Zhao was a Chinese national.
Zhao mentioned in a 2018 Rolling Stone interview that she tried to join the Youth Communist Party in Beijing, but was “blocked” because she had “low grades,” so she moved to London to study political science. “I just wanted to get discount movie tickets!” she said of her attempt to become a Communist Party member.
Nevertheless, two Chinese state media reporters told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Monday they were explicitly ordered to suppress information about Zhao’s Oscar win by the CCP’s propaganda ministry, allegedly because of her “previous public opinions.”
In the blink of an eye, the social media threads that celebrated Zhao as the “pride of China” were gone, replaced by hashtags that denounced her as a “traitor.” Nomadland vanished from the Chinese Internet, becoming as difficult to find with keyword searches as Tiananmen Square.
China’s backlash against Zhao seemed far out of proportion to a single passing remark in an eight-year-old interview that was deleted from the Internet before she won the Golden Globe award; the CCP treated her with much the same phony “grassroots” fury as the foreign companies it is forcing to swallow their complaints about slave labor in Xinjiang province.
There is no recent evidence that Zhao has spoken out against the tyranny in Beijing or was planning to do so. She doesn’t even seem interested in responding to the CCP’s censorship of her Oscars. She approvingly recited a Chinese proverb in Mandarin during her Academy Awards acceptance speech, and the WSJ reported those Chinese citizens who found a way to watch her “responded with a flood of excited reviews and a variety of happy-face emoticons” – all of which were then deleted by Beijing’s censors.
The UK Guardian theorized the CCP is staging a bit of online theater to make itself look thoughtful and globalist, as wise government officials step forward to rein in the lovable but misguided patriotism of hot-blooded nationalists:
Not all references to the film have disappeared. An English version of the film poster remains on ticketing website Douban, albeit without a release time. A Xinhua article with an April-dated movie poster and glowing quotes from Zhao’s family is still online. And some discussion is continuing, including by state media figures, about whether nationalistic fervour is leading to oversensitivity about any perceived criticism.
Hu Xijin, the editor of nationalistic state media outlet the Global Times, wrote on Weibo that while he felt people’s anger at her comments was justified, withdrawing the film from release would not be.
“To keep China open means to be able to accommodate some conflicts and inconsistencies,” Hu said. “In 2013, Zhao Ting said something that could be regarded as humiliating to China, but she is not the kind of extremist who turn such values into political positions and highlights them overseas.”
Others suspected the Oscar blackout was intended to send a message to Zhao, reminding her that the CCP can make her into a non-person at will if she decides to use her growing fame to criticize Beijing. The Party has become even more hypersensitive to criticism than usual as its 100th anniversary approaches.
The CCP might be even keener to send that message to Zhao’s business partners. Her next project is a big-budget Marvel superhero film, The Eternals, and perhaps the CCP wants to remind Hollywood that its tentpole pictures can be blocked from the lucrative Chinese market if they don’t toe the Communist Party line. In the jittery post-pandemic film industry, China’s box office is more important than ever for expensive movies, so the CCP has more clout over Hollywood than ever before.
It is also possible the CCP settled on Zhao and Nomadland as a means of expressing its anger at other developments in the U.S. film industry, most notably the attention paid to the Oscar-nominated short documentary Do Not Split, Norwegian director Anders Hammer’s look at the Hong Kong protest movement.
The CCP might have felt it was risky to lash out at Do Not Split or Hammer directly since he loves the attention.
“Beijing has helped us a lot,” he gushed to the South China Morning Post two weeks before the Oscars. “The main aim of making a documentary is not to win the Oscar but to bring attention to the critical situation in Hong Kong. We have received so much more attention.”
Whatever happened with Chloe Zhao, the CCP apparently decided its messages have been sent, because Chinese state media began writing about her Oscar win on Monday.
The Global Times congratulated Zhao and sneered at the “failure of documentary Do Not Split,” muttering “the artistic level of the work was low and that it featured one-sided political expression, so its failure was a balancing act by Oscar voters.”
The CCP paper also chided the Oscars for “playing the ‘politically correct’ and ‘diversity’ cards” to claw back left-wing American viewers by tossing a few statues to minority filmmakers like Zhao.
This theme was expanded in another Global Times editorial on Tuesday that laughed at Hollywood for attempting to conceal America’s history of systemic racism and sexism by giving symbolic lollipops to Zhao and other people of color:
When US media outlets keep underlying that Zhao was “the first female of color and first Asian-American woman to win the prestigious prize,” they are actually suggesting time and again how deep-rooted racism and sexism is in US society – it took 93 years to present the award to an Asian-American woman for the very first time. Before her, “only five women, all White, had ever been nominated and only one had won,” CNN reported on Monday.
In addition, Youn Yuh-jung, a South Korean actress, also has made Oscars’ history this year as the first Korean performer to win an Academy Award for best supporting actress. The awards mirror that discrimination is still mainstream in Hollywood, but don’t worry, political correctness will come once in a while.
The Global Times concluded by praising Zhao’s talent and the “artistic value” of Nomadland. “Many people like the film’s artistic sense and filming technique. In China, it has also captured the hearts of many movie fans,” the CCP paper claimed.
Perhaps the true meaning of the Chloe Zhao controversy, the real signal the CCP wanted to send, is that China has its own blockbuster film industry now, its box office became bigger than America’s during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, and Hollywood will have to do much more than give awards to the odd Asian filmmaker if it wants to preserve its access to that vital Chinese market.