Chloé Zhao wins big at Oscars with ‘Nomadland,’ but China censors her milestones

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win Best Director and Best Picture for “Nomadland” at Sunday’s Academy Awards. Hollywood celebrated, but in Zhao’s native China, mentions of her huge night were reportedly scrubbed from the internet and social media, and the state-run media barely reported on the Oscars. It’s the latest development in the relationship between Hollywood and China, which have collaborated to make and distribute blockbusters over the years. 

The censure is the result of Zhao’s history of criticizing the Chinese government, says Aynne Kokas, author of “Hollywood Made in China” and associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

“There was political pressure from the top. But then there was also bottom-up pressure from Chinese netizens who pushed back against … Zhao for being insufficiently patriotic,” Kokas tells KCRW. 

In her acceptance speech, Zhao recalled memorizing classic Chinese poetry, including “Three Character Classic,” a 13th century poem that explains how people are inherently good. Kokas says Chinese schools no longer teach that poem.

“It's been replaced by Patriotic Party education. So while Zhao was talking about that, it may appeal to Chinese people who still teach their children this at home or people in Taiwan or in Hong Kong. But in terms of a direct appeal to the Chinese government, it doesn't play that way.”

China did not air the Oscars, and according to Kokas, that’s due to the nomination of documentary short “Do Not Split.” The 35-minute film follows the Hong Kong protests for democracy and includes graphic footage from those events. 

“There was a lot of concern on the part of Chinese regulators that there would be discussion about the film, that the filmmakers might win and use their platform to advocate for the position of democracy protesters in Hong Kong.” 

Kokas says it’ll be interesting to follow how Zhao’s future work will be received in China. Her next film, Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “The Eternals,” will need to be distributed in China to recuperate its budget.  

“It's a very, very different level of pressure. And there's an increasing level of tension between the U.S. and China. And Chloé Zhao in particular has become a lightning rod in this relationship as well. So it remains to be seen if she'll stay on as the director, if the film will get made, if the film will be distributed in China. And if it is, if it's able to be successful.” 



  • Aynne Kokas - author of “Hollywood Made in China,” associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia