Zhao, who was born in China, was named best director for Nomadland on Monday (April 26), making her the first Asian woman to win the category in the award’s 93-year history.
The recession-era tale about a community of van dwellers in America also won Oscars for best picture and best actress, for Frances McDormand.
About 30 people had gathered at a small bar on The Bund, a historic district in central Shanghai, as early as 8:00 a.m. local time (0000 GMT) to support Zhao and watch the awards live on YouTube.
But the screening, hosted by the New York University alumni, didn’t start until 10 a.m., when organiser Kevin Ke got his VPN service to work.
“They cut the VPN,” Ke said, adding his WeChat account was shut down after he wrote a post praising Zhao.
The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Many Western apps such as YouTube are banned in China where the local internet is tightly regulated and often censored of content that could undermine the ruling Communist Party. A VPN service is needed to bypass the so-called Great Firewall.
Zhao’s win comes on the back of rising grassroots fervour for the government in China, where the Beijing-born director grew up.
In March, some Chinese netizens said Zhao had insulted China and questioned her nationality following an interview she gave in 2013 in which she was critical of the country.
Video snippets of Zhao’s acceptance of the best director award were posted on Chinese social media.
“I was a bit surprised that Zhao did not use Mandarin to say thank you,” said one user of China’s Twitter-like microblog Weibo. “Bong Joon-ho spoke in his native language.”
Bong, a Korean director, won four Oscars last year for Parasite.
Information on Nomadland has been scrubbed from Chinese ticketing platforms, film review websites and social media.
The movie’s release, slated for April 23 in mainland China, was suspended.
Chinese regulators have also directed local media not to broadcast the Oscars, which follows Zhao’s critical comments and the nomination of a documentary about Hong Kong’s 2019 protests.
“Somebody wants to bring her down, mafia-style on the internet,” Ke said.
“They’re trying to destroy her because she said China is a country full of lies,” he said in reference to her 2013 interview.