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China’s Oscars boycott mixes politics with push to curb Hollywood dominance

An Oscar statue displayed at last year's Academy Awards in Hollywood. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

Early this year, Chinese state media began effusing about the Oscar nominations of Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao — whose film “Nomadland” is in the running for six awards, including best picture. The Global Times tabloid called Zhao the “pride of China” and official outlets were awash with the news of the movie’s April release in the country.

Excitement quickly turned to recrimination after Internet users dug up old material to accuse Zhao of slandering China. (In since-deleted comments from a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine, she said there were “lies everywhere” in the country.) By late March, the Communist Party’s publicity department had ordered China Central Television (CCTV) and other outlets to cancel broadcasts of the Academy Awards for the first time since 2003 and to play down discussion of Sunday’s ceremony, according to two people at the state broadcaster who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.

With U.S.-China relations at their lowest ebb since the Cold War and Beijing preparing for a sensitive political celebration, Chinese boycotts have hit the U.S. film industry’s night of nights. Hong Kong broadcaster TVB followed suit in canceling its coverage, citing “business considerations.” Review site Douban deleted entries for the ceremony. Streaming platforms Mango TV and 1905.com joined the blackout.

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“It definitely has something to do with politics, especially the ongoing China-U.S. confrontation,” said Beijing-based movie director Philip Wang. “By making an issue out of Hollywood’s most glamorous event, the Chinese government means to tell everyone that we are not okay with Americans.”

This year, two Chinese co-productions (animated musical “Over the Moon” and best international feature candidate “Better Days”), a Chinese-born director (Zhao) and Disney’s China-themed “Mulan” are among the nominees. At a less politically fraught time, China might tout these filmmakers’ accolades as a win for the country.

Yet China is also seizing the opportunity to promote homegrown movies and weaken Hollywood’s dominance. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the country in 2019 was closing in on the United States in box office sales. Last year, China took the lead for the first time, though sales were down sharply in both countries because of virus disruption. Homegrown productions account for nine of the 10 top-grossing titles in China this year.

“Chinese filmmakers should have this ambition to build our own Hollywood and make our own Oscars … so that we can have more say and spread Chinese culture around the world,” opined a recent editorial in the state-owned China News Service. The Oscars, influential as they are, remain “dictated by Western tastes and standards,” it said.

Beijing has had trouble with the Oscars in the past. At the 1993 awards, the first time they were broadcast live in China, actor Richard Gere expressed support for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader China considers a separatist. For the next decade, live Oscars coverage was discontinued; Gere remains barred from entering the country.

China resumed broadcasting the awards in 2003, though censors occasionally cut footage of politically sensitive figures or comments. When Taiwanese director Ang Lee won best director for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006, CCTV did not air clips from the film that were shown during the ceremony (homosexuality is a taboo topic in China). In 2019, Mango TV omitted Lady Gaga from its live stream over her past meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Another sticking point for China is the nomination for best documentary of “Do Not Split,” a 35-minute production about the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The ensuing crackdown on dissent led the United States and China to impose tit-for-tat sanctions.

Anders Hammer, who directed “Do Not Split,” said China’s Oscars ban gave him a sense of concern mixed with validation.

“I know there are so many movie lovers in mainland China and Hong Kong, and I’m sorry they will not be able to watch the Oscars live on TV,” he said in an email. “The censoring and downplaying of the Oscars is unfortunately one of many examples of how free speech is being suppressed in both mainland China and Hong Kong now.”

Film scholars called the blackout a “symbolic move to shut out unwanted U.S. scrutiny” and prevent impromptu criticism of China during a live broadcast. The Biden administration has criticized China over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong.

“If the Chinese audience get wind of such a protest documentary, they would of course be curious what exactly happened in Hong Kong and could start comparing China’s official narrative and the Western narrative, which is ideologically too risky for China,” said Zhu Lin, who teaches TV and film directing at China’s Liaoning University.

View the complete list of Oscars nominations

Zhao, who via her publicist declined to comment, will be at the ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday. Hammer said that he will participate remotely from a TV studio in Oslo, where he lives. Hong Kong director Derek Tsang — whose “Better Days” grossed $240 million in the Chinese mainland — “probably won’t be able to attend” the Oscars because of travel protocols and “won’t even be able to watch it on TV” after the blackout, Tsang’s celebrity father Eric Tsang told Hong Kong media this month.

Industry insiders say China’s boycott is not just about Zhao or the Hong Kong documentary. Both could be easily cut from the broadcast. Zhao, who has directed Marvel’s upcoming “Eternals,” is unlikely to openly criticize China — a major market for Marvel movies.

Perhaps more significant is that the awards come ahead of the Communist Party’s centenary in July, a politically sensitive event for China’s leaders.

“Zhao was misread at some point, but she has not stepped forward to make a statement or explanation. To the party, silence means a lack of loyalty and sincerity,” said Wang, the director.

Despite the broadcast blackouts, some Chinese sites still include the Hong Kong documentary in their lists of nominations, under a different title (“bu yao fen lie” or “No Separation/Separatism”). Maoyan, an online ticketing and review platform, still shows information about the Oscars, though with Hammer’s title omitted from the list of nominees.

But doubts cloud the release of “Nomadland,” originally scheduled to begin screening in China on Friday. As of Thursday evening in Beijing, the film was nowhere to be found in Chinese cinema listings, and its April 23 release date had disappeared from major online ticketing apps.

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