Most governments would be proud, elated even, that one of their citizens had won an Oscar at the Academy Awards. It’s not just that an Oscar signifies artistic excellence, it’s that the award carries with it the prospect of a public relations opportunity for the artist’s home nation.
The Chinese Communists, however, are not particularly pleased with Chloe Zhao’s Oscar victory last weekend.
Selected as this year’s best director for her supervision of the movie, Nomadland, Zhao would appear to be a perfect representative for her country. The director is young, intelligent, charismatic, and well-versed in both Chinese and western culture. But reflecting her original victory, Zhao is also intellectually creative and unwilling to tow a particular line. That makes her incompatible with the model Chinese citizen that the Communists would wish to see her, and all other Chinese, to be.
Zhao’s cardinal sin in Communist eyes has been her willingness to speak freely when it comes to her perceptions of life under the Communist sickle and hammer. Interviewed a few years ago, Zhao observed that China is a “place where there are lies everywhere.” She continued, “A lot of information I received when I was younger was not true… [you must] arm yourself with information, and then challenge that too.”
This rhetoric was sufficient to see the Communists censor reporting of Zhao’s Oscar victory, and prevent Chinese citizens on the mainland from viewing her acceptance speech.
It says much about the Communist regime that they are so concerned with preventing their citizens from witnessing the success of one of their own. Indeed, the Communists’ strategy here is in direct contrast with the vast majority of other nations. Where their leaders and media outlets celebrate Oscar’s success as a positive representation of the nation, the Communists hide Zhao’s success. Xi Jinping’s minions take this approach for a simple reason: because they know that Zhao’s life testifies to Chinese thoughts and successes separate from the Communist Party’s orthodoxy.
To a regime that is founded on the enduring notion that success and moral activity must flow intertwined with the Communist Party’s diktats, Zhao’s success represents an obvious threat. Zhao proves to any Chinese citizens who might see her success that there is another way to live than the Communist way. Xi cannot tolerate such an understanding. Xi cannot accept how Zhao encapsulates that he might not have all the recipes for his citizens’ better futures. In that sense, Zhao shows that Xi is just another flawed politician like all the others, and not the deity-like figure that Communist propaganda presents him to be.
Interestingly, the Communists are now trying to make some use of Zhao.
An editorial this week in the People’s Daily global facing outlet, the Global Times, said “We hope [Zhao] can become more and more mature. In an era when the China-US confrontation is intensifying, she can play a mediating role in the two societies and avoid being a friction point. She cannot escape her special label, and she should actively use it.”
Here we see the Communists’ recognition that they cannot control Zhao nor completely ignore her. Instead, they want Zhao to act as some kind of picture child for the U.S.-China compromise. It’s desperate and really quite pathetic.
What’s not pathetic, however, is Zhao’s very real success. The young director has proven that Chinese aspirations neither need to be tied to the Communists nor bound to artificial limits. If Zhao can do this, other Chinese should know that they too can accomplish anything if given the freedom to try.
Xi is right to fear this very talented artist. She makes physical the dreams of a better and freer Chinese future.
(Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner foreign policy writer)
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