Censoring Chloé Zhao: China’s soft power problem

Ella Whitehurst | China Fellow

In late April, Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao made history at the 2021 Oscars as the first Chinese woman to win the Oscar for best director for her drama Nomadland. Even though Zhao moved to the US at the age of 14, she still clearly maintains a connection with her Chinese roots and remains influenced by the culture in which she was brought up. In her acceptance speech, Zhao spoke proudly of her childhood, making a reference to a specific proverb from a classical Chinese poem she read as a child - rénzhīchū xìngběnshàn (people at birth are inherently good). However, state media companies, usually quick to celebrate and even take credit for the international successes of Chinese diaspora, largely ignored Zhao’s win. Moreover, the flood of congratulatory messages on various social media platforms were also censored soon after the ceremony. For example, Douban, a Chinese movie rating site, banned searches of Nomadland and “Zhao Ting”.


China’s reaction can be seen as being connected, at least in part, to the earlier controversy surrounding Zhao that arose from a comment she made about China - “There are lies everywhere” - to a US magazine back in 2013. Directly following from this controversy, promotions for Nomadland were completely removed. The censorship of Zhao’s historic win, as well as her film, is not only unfair for the director herself and her fans in China, but is also a clear example of China’s failings in creating its “soft power”.


This event demonstrates how political interference through censorship can have negative influences on the domestic development of Chinese contemporary culture, especially within the entertainment industries. Without a thriving contemporary culture, it will remain hard for the government to promote a Chinese soft power to foreign audiences.


The idea of “soft power” is still a relatively recent one, but has grown to play an important role in contemporary international relations. The term is used to describe how exports of contemporary culture can help nations exert greater influences over foreign countries, and generally improve their international appeal. Soft power usually encompasses intangible influences, such as culture and ideology. Two of China’s regional neighbours, South Korea and Japan, have highlighted how soft power can be a powerful tool in creating attractive national images, especially when combined with economic growth. Both of these countries have achieved this through the dissemination of their contemporary pop cultures and entertainment. Furthermore, they also demonstrate the effectiveness of soft power when it originates from non-state actors, including the private sector and society itself.


China is not unaware of soft power all together. Indeed, it would be incorrect to say that the county has never engaged in soft power polices, such as the government efforts last year in mask and vaccine diplomacy. After coming to power, Xi Jinping referenced the term, stating that China would increase soft power policies that aim to disseminate modern Chinese cultural values. However, these policies are often heavily economised and aimed at developing countries. While certainly effective in achieving specific outcomes, there are limitations to these centralised efforts. Despite becoming a world leader in economic sectors, such as technological innovation, and gaining sizeable amounts of influence through global trade systems, the Chinese government remains largely as a loss when it comes to cultural soft power.


In comparison to Japan and South Korea, China’s censorship of the Oscar ceremony and Zhao’s win shows the government’s control over the creative art sectors. China’s soft power efforts are often interfered with by so-called hard power, specifically the government and economic influences. Zhao certainly had a point in her 2013 comment - the current soft power strategies employed by the Chinese government involve not just promoting positive images of China, but also the squashing of any images that are considered unappealing. A top-down approach is favoured, with state-run foreign language media outlets used to tell “China’s Story”.


Traditional Chinese culture already has a strong global presence, especially the cuisine, classical music and art, however, forms of contemporary culture have so far failed to gain the same amounts of influence. So, there is certainly an opportunity for the government to promote contemporary culture overseas as well. The problem is that when Chinese artists speak to a global stage, they are all too often censored. Zhao is only the most recent addition to this list, which spans the likes of Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian to international soccer player Hao Haidong. If Xi Jinping really wants to disseminate modern Chinese culture to global audiences, China needs to begin embracing and supporting its domestic creative industries, for it is impossible to promote what has already been censored.

Ella Whitehurst is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs