The 93rd Academy Awards, held last Sunday, were significant for several reasons. This year’s nominations were mainly for films that had been watched via the internet. And in another new departure, nine of the 20 acting nominations went to people of colour, with 70 women nominated across 23 categories.
The best director gong went to a candidate from both groups – the 39 year-old Chloe Zhao, director of Nomadland, which also won best picture.
The Beijing-born filmmaker is only the second woman to win the award and the first non-Caucasian female (Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the best director title for The Hurt Locker in 2010).
But in China, where Zhao lived until she was 14, the celebrations of her victory were decidedly muted. The day after her Oscar triumph there was no mention of it on Xinhua or CCTV, the state broadcaster. There was some low-key coverage in English-language newspapers like the Global Times but social media was eerily quiet. Weibo posts sharing news of her win were all reported to have been censored within an hour.
Indeed, the telecast for the Academy Awards wasn’t even aired in China, with the Washington Post reporting that media regulators decided not to show it.
The censorship of news of Zhao’s historic victory is political. WiC reported back in issue 531 that she had offended the authorities, as well as some of the general public, with comments in an interview eight years ago in which she described China as “a place where there are lies everywhere”.
She was also criticised for another interview with an Australian media outlet in which she said that the United States was “now my country” (the news site later clarified that it had misquoted Zhao and that she had said the opposite).
No matter, she was soon being besmirched as a “traitor” and “embarrassment to China”.
Before long, searches for Nomadland were blocked on social media platforms too. Promotional material and references to the film’s release date also disappeared.
Perhaps hoping to repair the relationship with her motherland, Zhao delivered a Chinese quote from The Three Character Classic (三字经) in her Oscar acceptance speech.
Citing the saying that “people at birth are inherently good”, she said she often recited it with her father when she was “growing up in China”.
“I still truly believe in them today,” she added, referring to the pearls of wisdom in this Confucian classic.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, congratulated Zhao on Twitter, before asking her to “become more and more mature” in handling the “troubles” that strained China-US ties might cause her. Some netizens also responded more positively to her speech, before news of it was scrubbed from the internet. Others expressed their frustration at the news blackout. “China’s public opinion control is outrageous. After Chloe Zhao’s startling Oscars win, there is not even a fart on weibo,” one netizen despaired.
Disney will be hoping that Chinese audiences will start to get more receptive to Zhao’s achievements, as she is also the director of The Eternals, a Marvel superhero film starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek scheduled for release later this year. Disney has high hopes that like earlier Marvel fare such as The Avengers it will prove a big hit at the Chinese box office.
But if the reaction in China to Zhao’s Oscar win was muted, there was more of an attempt to claim a piece of her success in the UK, where she studied at Brighton College. A teacher there described herself as a “surrogate parent” during Zhao’s time at the fee-paying school in southern England.
“Coming from China 20 years ago to a boarding school must have been quite a culture shock,” Alison Withers told The Times. When Zhao arrived at the school aged 14, her English was “very weak,” Wither recalled.
“That’s where her determination came out. She immersed herself,” she added.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.