Multiple Oscar-winning film Nomadland was directed by a Chinese director, but the film isn't being celebrated in her home country.

States can deflect criticisms of human rights abuses with ease, but it is far harder for governments to dull the impact of sincere, sympathetic works of art.

At a time when diplomatic relations between the US and China are at their lowest point in decades, a Chinese director winning the most prestigious American award for filmmaking might seem like a reason for hope relations could improve. Unfortunately, it is not. 

Chloe Zhao’s ‘’Nomadland’’ picked up three Oscar trophies, including Best Picture. Zhao herself won Best Director. The film’s star, Frances McDormand, won Best Actress. Zhao is now the second woman to win the award for best director and the first woman of color. 

In her acceptance speech, Zhao recalled memorising Chinese poetry with her father as a child, including one three character phrase: ‘’People at birth are inherently good.’’

‘’I still truly believe them today,’’ Zhao said, holding the Oscar statuette. ‘’Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, but I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world. So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold on to the goodness in each other. And this is for you. You inspire me to keep going.’’ 

Nomadland tells the story of Fern, a 60-something widow who sets out in a van after the Nevada factory town she’d lived in with her husband for three decades dissolves. Set in 2011, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Fern joins other ‘’nomads’’ in the American west dislocated by the Great Recession. 

They can’t afford to retire, so they try to find a place in the world by remaining constantly in motion. It’s based on a 2017 non-fiction book by American journalist Jessica Bruder, who worked and travelled alongside this subculture of vehicle-bound vagabonds. This life is not easy, involving degrading, low-wage, temporary jobs and exposure to the elements. 

Now imagine taking a time machine back to the year 2001, when the World Trade Organisation granted Beijing "Most Favored Nation" status, and telling an American economist that by the year 2021 a Chinese director, who now lives in Los Angeles, had won the Academy Award for Best Picture thanks to a humanistic portrayal of American poverty and atomisation. 

That economist might think that free trade between the two countries had, indeed, brought about an era of understanding and cultural exchange newly unencumbered by the history of the Cold War, colonialism and racism. That economist would, of course, be mistaken. Those resentments still serve as sources of ill will today and frame one country’s success as the other’s downfall. 

Nevertheless, the humanistic subject matter of Zhao’s Oscar win and career as a filmmaker runs counter to the nationalist narratives in vogue in China today. It also defies the Trumpist chauvinism that would treat a foreigner's viewpoint on American life with suspicion. Her film occupies a strip of intellectual territory that is eroding under zero-sum calculations. 

It’s a narrative made worse by the deafening echo chambers of online politics, a phenomenon neither Americans nor Chinese people have found a way to escape. On both internets, statements like ‘’people at birth are inherently good’’ carry a humanism that conflicts with our digital identities that refer to strangers with epithets we’d probably be too shy to use in person.    

Terms related to the film were banned on Chinese social media, prompting users to employ clever tactics to discuss the event. The controversy stems from an interview Zhao gave in 2013 in which she said China was a ‘’place full of lies.’’ That single statement incited a nationalist backlash against her online, in contrast to praise she received in state-run press before the criticism emerged

‘’Chinese government censors would rather blindfold Chinese Internet users and silence expressions of pride and joy of the Chinese people for the first Chinese film director winning the Oscar,’’ Renee Xia,  director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told TRT World. ‘’The Chinese government’s narrative about the US as a superpower ‘in decline’ could find a fit with the messages of the film Nomadland. But state censors cannot be expected to be rational.’’

Xia says that the backlash is not a reflection of Chinese netizens coming to their own conclusions. Before the discovery of her 2013 statement, state-run media had celebrated Zhao’s chances of winning. 

‘’This episode of censoring and discrediting Zhao is not something organically grown out of the Chinese society.  The Chinese government’s Internet censorship has not made Chinese society “safe.” While any dissenting expressions and information inconvenient to the government’s own narratives are strictly censored,’’ she said.

The diplomatic line that has emerged from Beijing in recent years holds that the concept of human rights and China, as discussed in the US, is simply a weapon to discredit China’s system. This applies in the cases of democracy activists in Hong Kong and Uighur minority Xinjiang, where human rights advocates have found evidence of severe abuses committed in the name of public safety. China denies the claims made by human rights organisations. But being unable to discuss these issues freely, Xia says, makes everyone even less safe. 

Blocking discussion of Nomadland will not help decrease tensions between Beijing and Washington, and increase the chances of conflict between the two countries. More than that, it’s easy for a foreign ministry to spin criticisms of human rights abuses as cynical, selective ploys. It’s much harder to do the same with realistic, humanistic portraits of people struggling for survival against overwhelming odds.

‘’Censorship always hampers mutual understanding,’’ Xia added. 

It’s unlikely there will be a screening of the film in mainland China anytime soon. That’s unfortunate. If there were one, older Chinese audiences might be able to see that they face a similar challenge as Fern does. China is set to raise its retirement age, meaning that more workers may have to toil into their elder years, just as Fern does in the film.

If there’s any universal human truth that transcends politics, it’s the inevitability of aging. If we all start out at birth inherently good, we all end up on our deathbeds inherently helpless. And no ideology or government censor has been able to change that.