Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar win should have been met with jubilation in China, the country of her birth. On Sunday night, she became the first Chinese and woman of color to be named best director, for “Nomadland,” which also took home the prize for best picture.
Instead, the Chinese government imposed a virtual news blackout, and censors moved to tamp down or scrub out discussion of the award on social media.
Chinese state-run news media outlets — which are typically eager to celebrate recognition of its citizens on the global stage — made nearly no mention of the Oscars, let alone Ms. Zhao. Chinese social media platforms raced to delete or limit the circulation of articles and posts about the ceremony and Ms. Zhao, forcing many internet users and fans to use homonyms and wordplay to evade the censors.
No reason has been given for the suppression, though Ms. Zhao has recently been the target of a nationalist backlash over remarks she had made about China in the past.
Hung Huang, a writer in Beijing, said the state news media blackout appeared to be the latest symptom of the recent escalation in tensions between the United States and China.
“People should be celebrating — both Americans for giving her credit as a film director, and Chinese, for the fact that one of their own won a very prestigious international award,” Ms. Hung said. “But the politics of the U.S.-China relationship seem to have filtered down to the cultural and art circles, which is a shame.”
By midafternoon on Monday, The Global Times, a Communist Party-owned newspaper, broke the silence to urge Ms. Zhao to play a “mediating role” between China and the United States and “avoid being a friction point.”
“We hope she can become more and more mature,” the paper wrote in an editorial that was published only in English.
Although some posts about Ms. Zhao’s success made it through the filters, for the most part, the censors made it clear that the topic was off limits. Searches on Weibo, a popular social media platform, for the hashtag “Chloé Zhao wins the Oscar for best director” returned only the message: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the page is not found.”
Among the many posts that were deleted on Weibo were ones that expressed frustration at the attacks on Ms. Zhao.
“At a time we should be celebrating Chloé Zhao, who has talked about the influence of Chinese culture on her life, there are still some people who are anxious to disassociate themselves from her and her Chinese identity,” wrote one user on Weibo in a post that later disappeared. “I think this phenomenon is not good at all.”
The controversy that had engulfed Ms. Zhao last month centered on remarks she made in 2013 to an American film magazine in which she criticized China as a place “where there are lies everywhere.”
Nationalist trolls had also homed in on another, more recent interview in which Ms. Zhao, who grew up partly in the United States and now lives there, was quoted as saying: “The U.S. is now my country, ultimately.” (The Australian site that interviewed her later said that it had misquoted Ms. Zhao, and that she had actually said “not my country.”)
Following the uproar last month, searches on social media for hashtags related to “Nomadland” in Chinese were blocked, and Chinese-language promotional material vanished as well. Although the film, a sensitive portrait of the lives of itinerant Americans, had been scheduled for release in China last week, as of Monday, there were no screenings in theaters.
The Oscars also came under fire last month for the nomination of “Do Not Split,” a film about the antigovernment protests in Hong Kong in 2019, for best short documentary. The Global Times said then that the documentary “lacks artistry and is full of biased political stances.”
Not long after, reports emerged that broadcasters in mainland China and Hong Kong would not be airing the Oscars ceremony for the first time in decades. (One of them, TVB, a Hong Kong broadcaster, said the decision was commercial.)
“Do Not Split” lost to “Colette,” a film about a French resistance member who visits a concentration camp where her brother died. But its nomination alone had already helped raise awareness about China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, Anders Hammer, the documentary’s director, said in an interview before the awards.
“The ironic thing is that this censorship and the actions taken in Beijing and also Hong Kong have brought much more attention to our documentary and also brought much more attention to the main theme of our documentary, which is how basic democratic rights are disappearing in Hong Kong,” Mr. Hammer said.
Chinese reporters working at state-controlled news outlets had been ordered weeks ago to refrain from covering the awards ceremony altogether, said two employees of Beijing-based news outlets, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.
On Monday afternoon, there was no mention of the Oscars in the entertainment section of the flagship People’s Daily website. Instead, the top stories included a report on rural tourism in China and another on a “World Tai Chi Day” event in Malta.
But Ms. Zhao’s fans were undeterred by the censorship. On social media, they resorted to tactics that are by now familiar to many Chinese internet users: blurring out the names of Ms. Zhao and the film, writing backward, turning images on their side or adding slashes or exclamation marks between Chinese characters.
In their posts, many people praised Ms. Zhao’s acceptance speech, in which she said she had been “thinking a lot lately about how I keep going when things get hard.” For inspiration, she said she often looked to a line from a 13th-century classical text that she had memorized as a child growing up in China: “People at birth are inherently good.”
The line resonated with many Chinese who had also grown up memorizing those texts.
“It’s so hard to describe how I felt when I heard her say onstage those six characters in a Beijing accent,” one user wrote. “It may not be my favorite classical phrase — I would say I don’t even really agree with it — but in that moment I cried.”
For many observers, the censorship was something of a lost opportunity for the Chinese government, which has long sought to replicate the success of Hollywood in projecting American soft power around the world.
“The way she drew from her Chinese heritage in tackling difficulties is inspiring,” said Raymond Zhou, an independent film critic based in Beijing. “It’s sad she got massively misunderstood due to a string of cross-cultural events.”
He declined to say more, given the political sensitivity of the issue, adding only that “her body of work speaks for itself.”
Austin Ramzy and Joy Dong contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Claire Fu contributed research.