In February, when Beijing-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao (趙婷) was nominated for the best director award for her film Nomadland ahead of this year’s Academy Awards, Chinese state media hailed her as “the pride of China.” At the awards ceremony last month, Zhao exceeded expectations, scooping up three of the night’s most coveted Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress.
However, this time Chinese state media roasted Zhao as “scum” who had “insulted China.” Nomadland was pulled from distribution in China, Zhao was “unpersoned,” the awards ceremony was not broadcast, and media posts and hashtags of the film were scrubbed from Chinese social media.
The swift reversal of Zhao’s reputation in her native country speaks volumes about the situation in China.
After Zhao won Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards on March 1, Chinese cybernationalists dug up Zhao’s 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine.
During the interview Zhao explained the inspiration behind her debut feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me: “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere.”
“You felt like you were never going to be able to get out. A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true,” she added.
In a March 3 interview with Australian Web site news.au.com, Zhao was quoted as saying that the US “is now my country, ultimately.”
The Web site subsequently published an editor’s note stating that Zhao had been misquoted and she actually said that the US “is not my country, ultimately.”
For China’s hot-under-the-collar nationalists, who enjoy compelling people of Chinese ancestry residing outside of China to affirm that they are Chinese, Zhao’s original quote would have grated enormously, while her earlier statement that in China “there are lies everywhere” must have struck a blow to the solar plexus.
The Chinese cybernationalists’ descent into paroxysms of rage and their frenzied attacks on Zhao is the natural reaction of people suffering from wounded pride.
As a result, Zhao and Nomadland have been “canceled” in China and state media were banned by the central government from screening the Oscar awards ceremony.
Despite Beijing’s efforts to sever Zhao from her native country, during her acceptance speech, she reminisced about her childhood in China and said that while shooting the film she was reminded of how she would memorize classic Chinese poems with her father.
She movingly recited the first passage of the classical Chinese poem Three Character Classic (三字經), which includes the line: “People at birth are inherently good (人之初、性本善).”
Zhao said that, to this day, she still believes this to be true.
She said: “Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world.”
Zhao’s acceptance speech revealed an important truth: Chinese culture has only partly shaped the 39-year-old director’s character. That China’s cybernationalists have rounded upon her for the true words that she spoke about the reality of growing up in China exposes a petty narrow-mindedness and insularity that the rest of the world would never accept.
Zhao left China aged 15 to study in the UK, then went on to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts under the tutelage of director Spike Lee.
Zhao’s natural talent and hard work culminated in her third feature film, Nomadland, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year where it won the festival’s highest honor, the Golden Lion.
Beijing’s criticism of Zhao as “scum” who has “insulted China” is a reflection of how all matters are viewed through the prism of nationalism in today’s China.
Nomadland’s plot has nothing to do with Chinese politics. Set in the US in 2010, two years after the financial crisis, the film tells the story of an elderly widower called Fern who loses her job at a factory when it closed down. Fern begins living in a van and travels the US in search of work, and while on the road, she becomes acquainted with a community of fellow nomads.
While drifting through the great outdoors, Fern realizes that she has thrown off the shackles of society and returned to a pure and natural human state, regaining her love of life, caring for others and helping one another.
The film delves deeply into hardship and crisis suffered by the bottom rung of US society and therefore aligns with Beijing’s overarching propaganda narrative that seeks to portray a rising East and a declining West.
However, as US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in response to a tongue-lashing by his counterparts at the US-China meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in March: “A confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve, and that is the secret sauce of America.”
As for Zhao’s statement that “there are lies everywhere,” there is good reason for this statement. In the dying days of the Qing Dynasty, academic and reformist Liang Qichao (梁啟超) was determined to create a new Chinese national identity.
In a paper written in 1900, titled “Tracing the origins of China’s decline,” Liang listed what he viewed as the six main deeply ingrained vices of Chinese, one of which was disloyalty.
Writer Hu Shih (胡適) believed that the supposed defining characteristics of Chinese — love, benevolence, righteousness and morality — were all utterly incorrect, and that Chinese should actually be defined as a people predisposed to telling lies and fawning over the virtues and achievements of others.
Another important figure of the period was Yan Fu (嚴復), who wrote that “China’s decline can be summarized as: A propensity toward imitation that has culminated in a crescendo of shamelessness.”
Has anything changed in the past 100 years — disloyalty, hypocrisy, perfidy and a predisposition for telling lies — since these eminent intellectuals put down in writing what they say is the ingrained faults of their own people?
There are too many examples to mention from recent history, but here are just a few:
In 1951, officials from Beijing signed the Seventeen Point Agreement with delegates of Tibet’s 14th Dalai Lama that pledged the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet.
However, Beijing quickly violated the terms of the agreement and began to repress Tibetans. By 1959, the Dalai Lama had been forced to flee and go into exile in India, where he remains today. The agreement was a pack of lies and not worth the paper it was written on.
During an official visit to the US in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) promised that “China has no intention of militarizing its possessions in the South China Sea.” It was another barefaced lie.
French writer Guy Sorman wrote a book on China, titled Empire of Lies, while Chinese dissident writer Yu Jie (余杰), who lives in the US, associated compulsive lying with an illness and linked it to Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
He said that China’s counterfeit culture, which stems from dishonesty and lying, could destroy the world as we know it.
Michael Pillsbury, who authored the book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, wrote that China achieved its rise to great power status by deceiving its old foe, the US, and other Western nations, who have only recently woken up to the fact that they were swindled by Beijing.
Zhao’s remark that “a lot of info I received when I was younger was not true” would resonate with Taiwanese who lived through the Martial Law era, when many films, books, and media and music were prohibited and party-state apparatchiks carried out “thought checks,” strangled debate and controlled culture.
Fortunately, Taiwanese charted a path toward liberal democracy. To dismantle a society built on lies, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Translated by Edward Jones
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