There’s just one problem with playing up Zhao’s involvement: Her win was censored in China, the country of her birth. Not only did the Chinese government ban the Oscars broadcast, thanks to the nomination of a short documentary highlighting the brutal repression of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, censors also scrubbed news of Zhao’s win from Chinese websites and social media platforms.
The nominal reason for this censorship revolves around comments Zhao made years ago in which she said that, growing up, China had been a place “where there are lies everywhere.” This sort of language is hard for the Chinese Communist Party to tolerate, given that it’s true and authoritarian regimes bristle at truth more than anything else.
Still, the news came as a surprise to some in the United States. After all, this was a historic win! Zhao was the first woman of color to win the best director award, and she did so for a movie that had a deeply dyspeptic take on the nature of American society and the U.S. economic system. Plus, she’s a Chinese national. Certainly this represents a huge amount of prestige for the Chinese government, does it not?
This is a decidedly American — specifically, American progressive — way of looking at things, one that prizes the prism of identity above all else.
Disney has made a concerted effort to appeal to Chinese audiences, but it has done so in a way, informed by this perspective, that assumes the best way to do so is to elevate concerns about ethnic identity. This is why Disney made a live-action “Mulan” film, one set in China with Chinese actors. However, Chinese audiences can already get that sort of product from their own burgeoning film industry, and they can get it in a way that’s more authentic, less prone to falling into cultural traps, and told by storytellers who understand Chinese tropes and tastes with native fluency.
Then there’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” another Disney movie that has flopped in China despite hopes that the East Asian flavor of the story, based largely on Southeast Asian myths, might play well with Chinese audiences. And now Disney is confronted with this Chloé Zhao situation, a directorial hire the Mouse House undoubtedly thought would shore up its standing in China, a territory that has provided so much revenue for these tentpoles in the MCU era.
Part of the challenge is that Chinese audiences are no longer as easily impressed by token efforts at including China as part of a big-budget production; we’re a long way from the days of throwaway scenes in “Iron Man 3” included only for Chinese audiences.
A bigger problem for Disney, though, is that Zhao represents a very real manifestation of the American Dream: She’s a foreign national who has come to America, broken into a difficult industry and found enormous success. This is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party fears the most: Zhao is a talented citizen who has left her homeland, has found greater freedoms in the United States and, perhaps most importantly, has not returned to China after achieving greatness. This, more than her comments about China being a land of lies, is what terrifies the CCP, according to Hollywood exec Chris Fenton.
“Chloé went off to the outside world, got educated, learned the craft of filmmaking and then excelled at it,” said Fenton, author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business.” “If Chloé decides after all those accolades and all that education and all that experience and expertise to continue living outside of China’s borders, that’s a blemish on the CCP. … Unless she does what Yao Ming did — he did the same thing, conquered the global stage, but came back to the homeland — [her problem with the CCP] never goes away.”
This is why, as much as Zhao represents the American Dream, she also represents the Chinese nightmare. And that’s a nightmare that must be keeping Disney up at night.