W HEN CHLOÉ ZHAO won Best Director for her film “Nomadland” at the Golden Globes in February, film buffs in China, the land of her birth, were ecstatic. State media proclaimed she was the pride of China. “Congratulations,” gushed Zhang Ziyi, star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, on social media. “Look forward to the Oscars.” Two months on, however, as Ms Zhao became the first woman of colour to win an Oscar for Best Director, and “Nomadland” scooped Best Picture, her name was nowhere to be seen.
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What happened? The answer is a form of nationalist backlash that is increasingly common. Soon after Ms Zhao won the Golden Globe, internet-users dug up comments she had made in 2013, saying China is “a place where there are lies everywhere”. Censors pounced, removing any mention of her from the Chinese internet.
Nationalist trolls have long been intolerant of speech they deem critical of China. The government is now endorsing these attacks, perhaps for fear of looking weak if it doesn’t. It has intervened to cancel the distribution of “Nomadland” in China.
Ms Zhao is not the first to be dealt with in this way. In June last year Hao Haidong, a Chinese footballer who is the country’s top scorer and now lives abroad, said that the Communist Party’s rule “has caused horrific atrocities against humanity”. Chinese websites swiftly deleted his name.
In 2020 Fang Fang, a writer who kept a diary throughout Wuhan’s lockdown, was read by tens of millions across the country. But once it was announced that an American publisher was translating her diary into English, she was labelled unpatriotic and faced an online onslaught. Her writing has been shunned by Chinese publishers and media outlets. “This is the trolls winning,” says Michael Berry, who translated Ms Fang’s work. “These attacks can escalate to the point they result in actual political decisions.”
China also has a broader agenda: to promote homegrown movies and weaken American cultural dominance. The era of seeking validation from Hollywood may be over, says Ying Zhu of the City University of New York. And an increasingly rocky relationship with America is causing the Communist Party to be less obsessed with international awards. Nine out of China’s ten top-grossing films this year were Chinese. The Oscars, argued a recent newspaper editorial, are “still dictated by Western tastes and standards”. China, it said, should have its own awards ceremony.
That may already be under way. Since 2019, China has banned all mainland film-makers from attending the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, formerly the leading Chinese-language festival, after one award winner called for Taiwanese independence. It even scheduled its own version, the Golden Rooster awards, on the same night, forcing film-makers to choose.
The party’s treatment of Ms Zhao is a missed opportunity for the country to promote its soft power. As the relationship between America and China has worsened, bicultural, bilingual artists such as Ms Zhao could be providing an important bridge. In her acceptance speech, she spoke warmly about memorising Chinese poetry with her father as a child, and she switched into Mandarin to quote a famous line from classical Chinese.
But the authorities have a long history of censoring Chinese artists, including “Fifth Generation” film-makers, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Mr Zhang’s latest film, “One Second”, was withdrawn at the last minute from the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 for “technical reasons”.
In the end, as with all good movies, there may be room for redemption. After the Oscars, Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper, published an English-language commentary praising Ms Zhao for her warmth towards her Chinese roots and saying she could have a “mediating role”.
Ms Zhao’s next film as director is “The Eternals”, a superhero movie from the Marvel franchise. Its producers will be hoping the film also does well in China, now the biggest market in the world. The fact that Ms Zhao is Chinese may have been part of her attraction to them. She is now looking more like a liability.■
A version of this article was published online on April 27th, 2021