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Commentary By Jordan McGillis

The Unexpected Geopolitical Lessons of Vietnam’s Barbie Ban

Culture Culture & Society, Censorship

What the spat tells us about Chinese ‘sharp power,’ the threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the drawbacks of a values-only foreign policy.

In a bizarre collision of pop culture and geopolitics, Vietnam has banned Barbie — yes, Barbie, a comedy film about the eponymous children’s doll — from domestic distribution. Not for the first time, Vietnam has taken offense at a Hollywood studio’s alleged acquiescence to China’s preferred portrayal of its “nine-dash line” — a notional boundary in what Hanoi calls the East Sea and Beijing calls the South China Sea. That in this instance the map in question is a cartoon bearing little resemblance to the real geographic layout of maritime Southeast Asia makes Vietnam’s ban more peculiar than its 2022 ban of Uncharted and its joint 2019 ban, with the Philippines and Malaysia, of Abominable. Farcical though this imbroglio may be, important considerations for U.S. policy-makers are contained herein, among them China’s deployment of “sharp power,” its threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the drawbacks of a values-only foreign policy.

China’s sharp power — its efforts to pierce the political and information environments of other countries — has long targeted Hollywood. Through threats of banning films from its gargantuan market, China’s Communist Party wields power over filmmakers in the ostensibly free world. The 2012 reboot of Red Dawn exemplifies the allure of appeasing Beijing. With the film already in post-production, MGM replaced China as the antagonist with North Korea. Blockbusters like Skyfall and Iron Man 3 have sought to avoid that fate by presenting China with special edits that contain no offending material, but often the effect is to avoid China’s displeasure altogether by crafting scripts to its taste. Though it is impossible to judge the dash-adorned map in Barbie — again, it is cartoon-like — as a definitive nod to Beijing, it is not difficult to imagine that China’s sharp power really did factor into Warner Brothers’ design choices.

Continue reading the entire piece here at National Review Online (paywall)


Jordan McGillis is a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute

Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images