With Nomadland blackout, China again embraces an unhappy tradition of censoring dissidents

In 1970, the Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his masterwork “The Gulag Archipelago”, a tome which carefully depicted the realities of life (and otherwise) under the draconian prison system. Solzhenitsyn knew it first-hand: he spent eight years in the Gulag for criticising Stalin in a private letter. Though the writer was permitted to leave Russia to attend the ceremony in Stockholm, he feared (wisely) that he wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the country. Solzhenitsyn stayed home.

Chloé Zhao, the filmmaker who last month won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for “Nomadland”, hasn’t suffered quite the same fate as Solzhenitsyn. But as a dissident artist who has not been reluctant in straying from Beijing’s official line, Zhao has nonetheless become the latest enemy of the ruling Communist Party of China.

The Wall Street Journal reported that thousands of articles and social media posts celebrating Zhao’s Oscars success were purged from China’s popular search browsers, Baidu and Sogou. Users were particularly excited by Zhao’s Best Director speech, in which she quoted a Mandarin axiom she and her father used to say to each other:

“People at birth are inherently good.”

That, along with Zhao’s 2013 assertion that in China lies are “everywhere”, was too much for the state censors. A pair of Chinese state media reporters told the newspaper they had been warned against mentioning Zhao on the basis of her “previous public opinion”. The state-sponsored newspaper The Global Times, in an editorial, simply reported the details of the Oscars ceremony and urged Zhao to “avoid being a friction point”.

This, thankfully, won’t work. (Has a dissident artist ever responded faithfully to the beckoning calls of an authoritarian regime?) Zhao should, of course, continue to make the sorts of socially aware, forward-thinking films for which she has become famous, in Hollywood and elsewhere. If the Chinese government’s narrow minded approach to art means the likes of Zhao and Ai Weiwei move westwards and produce their work here, we are lucky to have them. China is foolish to lose them.

Chloe Zhao's criticism of the CCP's regime forever labelled her as a 'dissenter'. Credit - Wikimedia Commons

Yet what is so striking about China’s censorship in this case is its severity. A lone comment to a magazine from eight years ago seems to be enough to make pains to diminish the achievements of a proud Chinese. Even the Soviet Union, which had a notoriously poor record on freedom of expression, allowed numerous seminal anti-establishment works, such as Solzhenitsyn’s famous “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, to be published at home and abroad. Moscow’s (albeit cynical) rationale was that such works could be read as many different things, and shouldn’t be too fussed about.

In 2021, China won’t allow even this much. The government’s removal of perfectly innocent, celebratory posts amount to a blanket ban on the output of Enemies of the State. Of course, artists in the Chinese diaspora haven’t suffered nearly as much as the nation’s oppressed Uighur population, nor the forcibly sterilized women of Xinjiang. But the scale of China’s censorship should worry observers across the world whenever it rears its ugly head.

The erasure of Zhao’s incredible success isn’t the first of its kind and certainly won’t be the last. But it must not be accepted as normal.

*Feature image credit - Bangkok Post

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