The best director censored

Ang Lee’s winning Oscar speech was censored in China to remove his special thanks to Taiwan.

For many Taiwanese, this year’s Academy Awards were a dramatic event not only for regular cinema-goers but also because a Taiwanese, Ang Lee, was nominated for the best director for the film ‘Life of Pi’. Awaiting his victory impatiently in front of the TV, many people in Taiwan wanted to share the glorious moment with the Taiwanese director. Media coverage of Lee’s acceptance speech, in which he especially thanked Taiwan, was quoted and viewed over and over again.

However, the same speech was reported differently in China. The official mouthpiece of the Chinese government, Xinhua news agency, censored Lee addressing Taiwan and the city Taichung, where the film was shot. China nonetheless welcomes Lee’s success, but with the relaxation of military tensions in recent years, cultural and diplomatic conflicts with Taiwan have come to the fore. Indeed, China maintains that Taiwan is merely one of its many provinces, and disputes its independence and uniqueness.

Taiwanese or Chinese? This seemingly simple question of identity involves a long and sad history over the last two hundred years. The current population of Taiwan consists of native Taiwanese and several strands of immigrants from China, including those who were once under Japanese colonisation. Those who retreated from mainland China after the Communist revolution in 1949 are just the latest newcomers. National identity can be a delicate issue in Taiwan, since some people consider themselves to be more Chinese than the mainland Chinese, while others claim to be the real Taiwanese.

As a result of this complexity, most people in Taiwan rejoice in their Oscar-winner. Since the country is absent from many international events and organisations, most notably the UN, moments that bring the nation together are highly prized. Indeed, people in Taiwan are eager to grab every chance to gain media coverage and international exposure. Xinhua’s censorship of Lee’s speech reflects how ‘Taiwan’ as a country is always under threat politically from its powerful neighbour.

The Chinese government may be able to control its media within its own borders by controlling what its citizens see or read. Yet such a politicised interpretation and reaction is likely to evoke anti-China sentiment in Taiwan. More importantly perhaps, such a gesture blurs the focus on film as an artistic creation. By claiming Lee’s achievement as the glory of the Chinese people, China carries out a form of cultural invasion.

To a certain degree, Taiwanese culture does belong to the greater Chinese culture: something shared by many countries in Eastern Asia. However, the Chinese government seems to lack the open-mindedness to accept the variety of these cultural heritages. From political oppression to cultural suppression, the Chinese government is keen on setting up its authority at the expense of freedom of expression, as well as Chinese people’s right to know the truth.  Such a measure seems to engender Chinese patriotism; however, from a Taiwanese point of view, this sense of oppression would intensify the cross strait opposition. In addition, in mainland China, illusion nationalism is thus created. Such blindness may currently seem to work due to the strong hold the Chinese government has attained over the internet, but as more and more Chinese people, especially amongst the young, become aware of the situation, it may become more and more difficult to achieve effective manipulation.

28 June 2013

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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