Hollywood’s China problem can be summed up neatly in one series of events from Sunday’s disastrous Academy Awards. In her acceptance speech for Best Director, Chloé Zhao was sure to cite her experience growing up in the Middle Kingdom and reflect on a Chinese proverb. The Chinese Communist Party still blacked her out.
For background purposes, China’s notoriously sensitive censors have sought to blackout Zhao’s success largely because she once said there were “lies everywhere” in the country during a 2013 interview with an obscure magazine. (Another interview initially contributed to the controversy, but as The Federalist reported this month, Zhao was genuinely misquoted.) This is hugely problematic for Disney, which tapped Zhao to direct “Eternals,” a big-budget film the company needs to succeed in China, where the CCP exerts extreme control over content. I went into more detail on this messy controversy here.
Observers have buzzed over how Zhao and Disney can right the ship with China since the country took measures to suppress discussion of the director in the wake of her success for “Nomadland.” Zhao’s decision to use her precious time on stage accepting the most coveted award in her profession to cite a Chinese proverb and mention her childhood in the country was subtle, but seemed in this context like a very intentional appeal to the CCP.
Her reward? Another blackout. Liza Lin reported on Monday “[t]wo state media reporters told The Wall Street Journal that they had received orders from China’s propaganda ministry not to report on Ms. Zhao’s victory, despite what they described as her status as a Chinese national, because of ‘previous public opinion.'”
Lin added more important context, writing, “China has long sought the soft-power prestige that comes with awards like the Oscars, which makes the official silence surrounding Ms. Zhao’s accomplishment particularly noteworthy.”
“The reticence comes amid a surge in digital nationalism, fanned by China’s ruling Communist Party, which has led to explosions of online anger at Swedish clothing retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB, the National Basketball Association, and others for perceived insults to China’s national honor,” she noted.
That’s all true, and it does not bode well for “Eternals,” a film reportedly made on a budget north of $200 million. The Chinese box office is now more lucrative than the American box office. That will, of course, mean more of our big-budget films will be watered down to appeal to both audiences, and Hollywood in general will be even more deferential to the CCP’s extremely sensitive censors, which punish any dissent from the party’s values in scripts or red carpet interviews or anywhere else with blacklisting.
It’s too early to say what the CCP will do when “Eternals” heads to theaters later this year. Disney is enormously powerful and has shown a pathetic willingness to toe the party line for the sake of profit. (See: Mulan.) But Zhao’s acceptance speech and the subsequent blackout is illustrative of a larger point: pleasing the CCP is nearly impossible, and Hollywood’s unpatriotic efforts to secure China’s blessings do not guarantee success — but they do guarantee the utter corruption of its integrity and its art.
Let’s not forget, it is an understatement to describe this year’s Oscars ratings as a disaster. The last decade of ratings have been a disaster. Sunday’s fractional ratings leave the Academy in a hole out of which it may never be able to climb. The industry could move the ceremony to Beijing, or restore its integrity and start focusing on meaningfully reprioritizing the American audience.