Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Padlock, China flag on a smartphone and China map, symbolizing the Great Firewall of China concept or GFW and all extreme Internet censorship in China

The Academy Award Goes to… 404

Chinese citizens were suddenly no longer allowed to know of an Oscar for Best Director won by a Beijing-born woman, let alone see the film

As the hoopla from the 92nd Academy Awards last weekend fades, if you search for “Chloe Zhao” on Google, you’ll discover a curious thing: She is the first Asian director and second female director to win an Academy Award for best director, for her film Nomadland. Search for “Chloe Zhao” or her Chinese name, “Zhao Ting,” on Baidu in China and you’ll find “only scattered links to deleted articles about the Academy Award honor” (Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2021). Posts on Weibo and WeChat congratulating her were removed within minutes of the announcement of her win for best director.

Rewriting the story in the U.S.

Zhao (pictured) was born in Beijing, went to a boarding school in the U.K., and finished high school in the U.S. She studied political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In a 2013 interview for her debut film The Songs My Brothers Taught Me for U.S. online magazine, Filmmaker, Zhao was asked how she ended up doing a film about suicides at the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. She told the magazine that it stemmed from her rebellious adolescence in China. Specifically, the second paragraph of the interview reads:

She admits, “I get asked a lot, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Zhao says that her rebellious adolescence in China, which led to her wanting to study abroad, is what connected her with this tale of an insurgent Lakota teen finding his way to adulthood within a cloistered environment.”
25 New Faces of Independent Film” at Filmmaker

The article, as it currently appears, did not contain anything known to trigger to China’s censors yet this was the interview that several articles, including the Wall Street Journal, referenced as the reason why Zhao was attacked online after receiving a Golden Globe award. A note at the bottom of the Filmmaker article says that it has been edited and condensed after publication, but doesn’t say when.

I do not typically read comments sections but this time I checked to see if anyone had noticed that media outlets and Wikipedia were quoting lines that I could not find in the article. One comment from two months ago asked why Filmmaker had censored the article. The commented helpfully provided the original wording of the second paragraph. I doubled-checked the commenter’s version on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Here’s the original paragraph from 2013:

She admits, “I get asked a lot, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Zhao says that the same impulses that led her to political science attracted her to this tale of an insurgent Lakota teen finding his way to adulthood within a cloistered environment in which teen suicide is rampant. “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere,” she continues. “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. 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.”
25 New Faces of Independent Film” at Filmmaker (July 18, 2013)

Media notice China’s sudden censorship of Zhao

Usually, publications in the U.S. and U.K. ignore the fact that a public figure is censored in China’s media. But not this time. Several outlets have reported on the way Chloé Zhao was censored in her own country.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the Chinese government usually seeks the “soft-power prestige that comes with awards like the Oscars,” which is why censorship of someone who has won the the highest awards in American film seems odd. Following up, WSJ contacted Weibo, Baidu, Sogou, Tencent (owner of WeChat), and Zhihu for a comment but none of the companies responded. WSJ also talked to Stanley Rosen of the University of Southern California, and expert in Chinese politics. Rosen pointed out that there is a conflict between the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to claim credit for a Beijing native succeeding in the arts in the West and its agenda of controlling messaging about China.

The Communist Party of China is gearing up its centennial in July 1921. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) tends to tighten the restrictions on what is allowed on China’s internet around notable holidays or events. In particular, the CAC wants positive news about China’s successes under the Communist Party.

The Guardian reports that social media posts about Zhao were removed within minutes of her Best-Picture win. When the school she had attended in Shanghai tried to view the Oscars using a VPN, it was shut down. The Chinese media did not immediately report on her win, and when they did, reviewers were critical. According to The Guardian, The Global Times “later published an editorial, saying Chinese people could ‘hardly commiserate’ with Nomadland and that its local box office takings — if it is shown in China — are expected to be ‘dim.’”

The Global Times editorialized that Zhao should “become more mature” and “avoid being a friction point” amid worsening U.S.–China relations. According to Variety, the editor-in-chief of GT had congratulated Zhao on Weibo, saying that his congratulations were not at odds with his censure of her “improper” remarks. His Weibo post was deleted.

Not everyone was silenced

Many Chinese netizens found clever ways to circumvent censors. In her acceptance speech, Zhao referenced the first two lines of Three Character Classic, a classical Chinese text that children formerly studied at school. The lines translate as “People at birth are inherently good.” As China Digital Times reports, several netizens pointed out the second verse reads “Their natures are similar, but their habits make them different” and made a play on the same Chinese characters in Xi Jinping’s name as in the verse. For example: “People at birth, are inherently good. Their natures are similar, it’s the sensitive characters in their names that make them different. Congratulations to director Chloé Zhao!”

Other netizens pointed out that the censorship itself proves that Zhao’s 2013 comments rang true.

Hong Kong protests and the Oscars

Chloe Zhao herself was not the only element in China’s internet censorship story. The Academy Awards were not broadcast Hong Kong, a first in fifty years. Although not specifically stated, many people think the ban was due to the fact that one of the nominees for short documentary was Do Not Split, directed by Anders Hammer, depicting the passion and resolve of the young Hong Kong protesters in their call for democracy and freedom.

While Do Not Split, did not win, the winners in the short documentary category, Alice Doyard and Anthony Giacchin for their film Colette, paid tribute to Hong Kong protesters in their acceptance speech. The documentary can be seen in full here (Content warning: profanity and some violence)

The CCP’s concern for polishing its image imperils the survival of contemporary film in the country.

You may also wish to read:

China: Snitching on those who recall non-approved history The Communist Party of China wants its centennial to proceed this year without memory of the millions dead in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square. (Heather Zeiger)

Clothing retailer H&M Canceled for revealing China’s forced labor Heather Zeiger: About a fifth of the world’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang, for which Uyghur labor is conscripted, partly through the detention camps complex. The Chinese government tightly controls a huge consumer market and can simply make companies with ethical concerns disappear from it. Fast. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

The Academy Award Goes to… 404