While the world celebrated China-born director Chloé Zhao’s historic three Oscar wins for best picture, best director and best editing, China’s censors were busy trying to wipe any trace of the Academy Awards from the web.
An initial burst of celebration and congratulatory messages appeared on Chinese social media just after the ceremony, which aired Monday morning Beijing time. But by afternoon, few traces remained as censors mowed down the vast majority social media posts, news articles, hashtags, images, videos and search topics related to Zhao or the event.
“Instead of celebrating Chloé Zhao’s wins at the Oscars and making the Chinese public [feel] proud, Beijing is busy censoring her — all for a criticism she made in 2013,” tweeted New York Times Asia tech columnist Li Yuan in disbelief, citing a critical comment about China Zhao made to a U.S. magazine that has made her the target of Chinese nationalist trolls. “For as long as I’ve been writing about Chinese censorship and propaganda, I still can’t wrap my mind around it.”
Official Chinese media such as the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, the state broadcaster CCTV and the Xinhua news agency published nothing about the Oscars or Zhao’s win — an unusual move, given that they are typically quick to highlight and claim overseas film awards won by ethnic Chinese artists as wins for China. At least four state media reporters told Western news outlets that they had been ordered by the country’s propaganda bureau not to report on the Oscars at all.
Only the tabloid-esque Global Times wrote on the subject, posting two English-language articles late in the day that did not appear in Chinese. In a reported piece, the paper cited a local critic as saying that Zhao’s win was primarily due to “the Oscars’ ‘political correctness.’” A separate editorial urged her to “become more and more mature” and “avoid being a friction point” in worsening U.S.-China relations.
Just hours before, the paper’s notoriously pugnacious editor-in-chief Hu Xijin himself congratulated Zhao for her win on Weibo. For the film to have won prizes “is not after all a bad thing,” he wrote.
“I hope everyone can understand that my support for the criticism of Zhao’s improper remarks is not at odds with congratulating her on the awards.” The post was soon deleted.
Celebrating “023456789” by “That Girl”
With censors on high alert, fans seeking to celebrate or discuss the Oscars had to come up with new ways of evading censorship: blurring out Zhao’s name, rotating images, adding scribbles to text or photos, or inventing new words and phrases.
“I had to take a screenshot, flip it upside down, translate it and change the phonetics just to post a winners list. People worked on posts all morning and they won’t go out,” one frustrated film blogger wrote. “It’s not embarrassing if you don’t win a prize; it’s only embarrassing if you win the prize and can’t celebrate it.”
Thus 赵婷, Zhao’s name in Chinese, became 赵Ting, half in English transliteration. More commonly, she just became “that girl.”
“If you know, you know,” joked bloggers, who starting writing about the “OSKARS” when the English word “Oscars” would no longer go through.
The term “无依之地,” the censored Chinese title of “Nomadland,” became WYZD, the first sound of every character, or “有靠之天” (characters that nonsensically mean the exact opposite of the ones in its official title), or even “Nonameland.” One of the most clever played off the popular choice ““无一之地” (which subs in the character for the number “one,” a homophone) to turn the title into “023456789.” The first two characters of that version mean “without a one.” (Get it?)
The influential Douban review site currently lists every award “Nomadland” has ever won, except its recent Oscars. The film’s main page remains up, but it can’t be found by searching “无依之地,” its Chinese title. Only searches for the title as translated for the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets (浪迹天地 or 游牧人生) will lead to the page.
A number of Douban users still found their way there Monday, despite the challenges. Less than a hundred of their messages remained up by Tuesday morning, most offering congratulations or blasting the widespread censorship.
“The whole world is celebrating; only we are busy hiding the film’s name,” one user wrote.
Another asked in a furious screed: “It swept the major categories of best picture, best director and best actress. You still don’t allow this kind of film to screen?! Am I supposed to watch such a well-shot film on my iPad? Do I have to wait for a re-screening in 10 years?! Will its Douban page disappear in two days?!”
Celebratory posts were often a single word: “!” or “Oscar” or “Congrats.” Many others were short and melancholic. “This will soon be 404’ed,” said one, referring to the error message that appears after content is deleted. Another wrote: “Here’s a film that doesn’t exist.”
Nationalist Anger Continues
After the Golden Globes in March, state media proudly declared Zhao a Chinese director who was the “pride of China.” But after social media users slammed her for critical comments from a since-deleted 2013 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Beijing’s tune changed.
Zhao had said that in her first film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” she was drawn to the story of a Native American teen on a North Dakota reservation because China, where she grew up, was a place “where there are lies everywhere” that made her feel like “you were never going to be able to get out.”
Originally, Zhao’s winning “Nomadland” was scheduled to begin a limited China release on Friday, April 23. It was quietly pulled from schedules on film and ticketing apps within hours of the nationalist firestorm against her, and has yet to list a date for a future debut.
After the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, which included the Hong Kong protest film “Do Not Split” in the best documentary short category, China began to censor references to the event and told media outlets to ban its broadcast. Hong Kong’s public broadcaster TVB soon followed suit.
The blackout hasn’t stoppered the controversy, however. Under the radar, nationalist debates about Zhao are still raging.
Most clips and translations of her best director acceptance speech — which cited the classic Chinese text, the “Three Character Classic” — were deleted. Under a few such remaining Weibo posts, users divided again into two camps: those cheering her on, and those accusing her of being a traitor and a non-Chinese citizen.
Zhao’s ice-cold China reception bodes very poorly for the commercial prospects of Zhao’s next film, Marvel Studios’ “The Eternals,” which will be counting on Chinese sales to boost its box office. It is currently scheduled for a Nov. 5 U.S. release.
At a regular press conference Monday, China’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the censoring of the Oscars because the matter didn’t fall under its purview.