Despite what some may argue, the US award show, the Oscars, is always political. This year, the 95th Annual Academy Awards has been entangled with Chinese politics for two reasons: First, Michelle Yeoh was the first Asian woman awarded Best Actress for her role in the movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Chinese social media used the Chinese-Malaysian actresses’ win as evidence of China’s rise in global cinema. Yet, ironically, the seven-award-winning movie was not released in mainland Chinese cinemas as it depicted material deemed subversive. Second, pro-Beijing Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen who supported Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s protests in 2019, was invited as an award presenter. The decision triggered an online petition.
Political cartoonist Badiucao’s Tweet summed up the irony of the two controversies:
Yeoh is a Malaysian-born Hokkienese Chinese woman who moved to the UK with her family when she was 15. She began her acting career in Hong Kong and became a famous action star in Asia. Another of her films, “The Lady” (2011), a biographical film about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, was also banned in China as leaders were concerned a pro-democracy film could undermine the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Michelle Yeoh plays Aung San Suu Kyi in the film, and she did not refrain from showing her support for Myanmar protesters after the 2021 coup.
Michelle Yeoh and the racial narrative of the Chinese ethnicity
“Everything Everywhere All At Once“ won seven awards in the 2023 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director. The film is an absurdist comedy featuring a Chinese American immigrant, played by Yeoh, who travels across a multiverse, taking on different forms and identities and, eventually, choosing to continue her life as a stressed mother of a rebellious lesbian daughter. The film was not shown in China as the depiction of a sexually diverse multiverse is distasteful to the Chinese censor as it contradicts the mainland Chinese project of reviving a “socialist spiritual civilization of the new era.”
While Yeoh’s most prominent films could not be shown in mainland Chinese cinema, Chinese online patriots have been eager to point out Yeoh’s Chinese ethnic origin to celebrate the rise of China and Asia. Hu Xijin, the top commentator from state-funded Global Times, led the “Chinese angle” of the Oscars Best Actress Award on Weibo:
“Congratulations to Michelle Yeoh. So happy for her. China is rising, and Asia is rising. People of Chinese and Asia descent will definitely receive more attention, gaze and respect all over the world. More people of Chinese descent will fly, and with their efforts and struggles, they will stand at the top of all sectors. The time has come. Keep up! People from all over the world who carry the blood and genes of the Chinese, regardless of where you are and your ancestors’ nationality.”
Hu won some applause on Chinese social media, and many crowned Michelle Yeoh as a “beacon of Chinese people” (華人之光). However, outside China, others resented the claim. Under Hu Xijin’s post, many Twitter users asked why Yeoh’s films are not available in China, and some mocked Hu’s message. One user explained the political message behind Hu’s claim:
“What Hu really wanted to say is: Michelle Yeoh, don’t forget to thank the Chinese Communist Party. Even though your movie can’t be released in China, you owe our great communist party. No matter where you were born, Chinese are forever in debt to the Chinese communist party.”
Donnie Yen’s controversial presence at the Oscars
Another controversy lies in the Acadmey’s decision to invite Donnie Yen as an award presenter at the Oscars. Yen is considered China’s top action star and has acted in many patriotic Kungfu movies, which feature a hero beating down stereotypical Japanese and western bullies, exemplified by the “Ip Man” series.
His image in the movies fits well with the official ideology of the Chinese government. In 2017, Yen was standing beside Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, as shown in Anna Kwok’s tweet:
During the 2019 anti-extradition protests, like many in the Chinese entertainment sector, Donnie Yen echoed Beijing’s official narratives by labeling the protests as riots. Rachel Cheung, a journalist from Vice News, highlighted his political position:
He also criticized western media outlets, in particular, BBC, for being biased against China in their reports. Early this year, he was appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as a representative.
Some called the Oscars committee hypocritical in inviting Donnie Yen, as they had previously rejected former comedic actor and current President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request to appear in the ceremony via Telecast for two consecutive years.
In reaction, a group of overseas Hong Kong political dissents launched an online petition against the Oscar’s decision to invite Yen as an award presenter.
As many as 100,000 people signed the petition. But the Oscars schedule went on according to plan on March 13 and attracted some petitioners to protest outside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles ahead of the ceremony:
Now the award ceremony is over, but the tension prevails. On the one hand, Beijing influencers continue to cement the country’s soft power by celebrating the achievement of “Chinese genes,” on the other hand, exiled activists from Hong Kong and China are warily watching the politics of Hollywood.
Following Donnie Yen’s Oscar appearance, outraged activists began criticizing the new president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Janet Yang, who established her foothold in the cinema industry by obtaining exclusive representation rights in North America for all films produced in mainland China through a small film distributor based in San Francisco in the early 1980s and then helped big American studios sell their movies to China. Jeffrey Ngo, a Hong Kong diaspora member, dug into Janet Yang’s Chinese politics in a Twitter thread:
It is an open secret that Chinese politics have shaped the Hollywood movie industry, given its huge 1.4 billion people market. But public mobilization against the hypocrisy of the “American dream” is rarely seen. While the scale of protests outside the Oscars venue is small, new political dramas may emerge. Stay tuned.
Oiwan Lam is a media activist, researcher, and educator currently based in Hong Kong.
This article originally appeared in Global Voices, an online community of writers, translators, and human rights activists from various countries and with different language abilities and expertise.
Feature image of Michelle Yeoh on stage at the 2023 Oscar stage taken from a screen capture from ABC7 Youtube Channel.