What the Vietnamese Barbie movie ban tells us about China’s politics of persuasion

Barbie has always had some degree of notoriety. She is at once a symbol of female empowerment, ridicule and consumerism. People might suspect that the recent ban of the Barbie movie by the Vietnamese government is motivated by these concerns. Instead, international political intrigue provides a better explanation.

Territorial disputes run deep in Southeast Asia, having both real and symbolic value. Claims by both Korea and Japan of the Dokdo (Takeshima) Islands are more than three centuries old, while Japan, Taiwan and China each claim ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Amid the frothy Barbie plot, the attentive viewer might notice a map depicting a broad area claimed by China in international waters that buffer the Philippines, Malaysia/Indonesia, Vietnam and China. The Chinese claim of the vast swath of territory, known as the “nine-dash line” because this symbol demarcates China’s claims in the region, ignores both international law and the counterclaims of other countries.

One map in one movie might seem innocuous. But the Chinese Communist Party revels in the persuasive power of pop culture, going so far as to purchase radio stations to broadcast its messages in other countries.

A globe shows the islands on the South China Sea with nine-dash line claims under Chinese territory on display at a bookstore in Beijing. China is pitted against smaller neighbours in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons.
(AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Appropriating culture

While critical viewers might discount the overt propaganda of many Chinese movies, they are likely less aware of the increasing influence China has in Hollywood.

Beyond movies, China has made more overt claims to the cultures of other countries. Korea is an example.

China has claimed traditional Korean songs (arirang), dress (hanbok) and the quintessential culinary staple, kimchi.

In the case of kimchi, Chinese state media claimed that the International Organization for Standardization’s recognition of pao kai, a Chinese fermented vegetable dish, extends to kimchi. Yet such assertions ignore international recognition of kimchi-making and kimchi as uniquely Korean.

Posts on Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, show the hashtag #小偷国# (thief country) when referring to Korean’s cultural products as China’s own.

Online debates over fermented cabbage, dresses and songs might seem trivial. But on a psychological level, culture and physical territory are central to group identities. The attempted slow erosion of independent cultural identities can pose future threats.

Vietnam’s concerns about a momentary glimpse of a map in a movie must be viewed in these terms.

People in scrubs wearing masks and gloves handle mounds of fermented cabbage with red chilis colouring them red.
Employees of a South Korean financial institution make kimchi to donate to needy neighbours at the organization’s headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, in November 2022. Even kimchi has been subject to cultural appropriation.
(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Cultures evolve

Imperial China’s former sphere of influence included countries like Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan. Known as the “Middle Kingdom,” it framed itself as a parent culture. But this is not how cultural evolution works.

People innovate, ideas are adopted within a group, they spread beyond the boundaries and borders of groups and are adapted by others. The Vietnamese, for example, developed their own folk medicine, often appropriated by the Chinese as “southern medicine (Thuốc Nam).”

By making claims on other cultures in the region, China is attempting to legitimize its influence as it seeks global superpower status.

Understandably, when China makes claims on regional cultural traditions — and territory — its neighbours fear for their autonomy.

A plane flies over a hilly island.
A Japanese maritime defence plane flies over disputed islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Eyeing territory

The Chinese Communist Party has set its sights on what it calls the South China Sea, ignoring a 2016 international ruling on the illegitimacy of its claims to the area.

A combo photo shows an artificial island with just a few structures on it, and the same island almost 25 years later with what appears to be a military base on it.
This combo photo shows the same Chinese structures on an man-made island in February 1999, top, and March 2022 in a disputed area of the South China Sea.
(AP Photos/Aaron Favila)

The party has dedicated considerable effort to building up a powerful navy and constructing artificial islands atop coral reefs to place military bases.

If not in form, then in spirit, the Chinese government’s actions are similar to Imperial Japan’s notion of a “sphere of co-prosperity” in the Pacific from 1931 to 1945. During this time, parts of Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other countries were subjected to brutal colonial rule.

While an arms build-up is underway, China’s main weapon is its soft power, a persuasive approach to international relations that involves the use of economic or cultural influence.

The Belt and Road Initiative represents an explicit, direct means to influence countries with financial support. Shaping the content of movies presents a more implicit, indirect means that often goes unnoticed.

Persuasion through media, messages

A key strategy in persuasion is to flood information ecosystems with desired messages. If we fail to critically reflect on their content, our acceptance increases. This is the same rationale behind product placement.

When presented in ubiquitous media, such as memes or postage stamps, an audience can begin to lose track of the credibility of the source. While a map in a fluffy movie can be discounted, the repeated presentation of images, dialogue and values that support the goals of the Chinese regime is concerning.

Beyond film, history textbooks and classrooms are the latest battleground for wars that continue to live in collective memory. Studies of Japanese textbooks, for example, have noted shifts in how the horrific crimes of Imperial Japan, including the Nanjing massacre, are represented. Publishers appear to engage in self-censorship to ensure a favourable position within the market.

Hollywood also seems to have willingly adopted self-censorship, with some notable exceptions.

A 2020 PEN America report entitled “Made in Hollywood, Censored in Beijing,” details how Hollywood decision-makers are increasingly making decisions about their films “based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.”




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The power of pink persuasion

Like many movies, Barbie is unlikely to have any lasting impact on society. Its brief moment in the spotlight will likely amuse audiences, but it also adds another small brick to the wall being built by China to expand its influence.

Once the context of cultural and territorial appropriation is appreciated, the action of Vietnam’s National Film Evaluation Council to ban the film shouldn’t be surprising. While a total ban might be excessive, the appearance of the map in the film disregards Vietnam’s autonomy and international agreements.

Hollywood — and other hubs of popular media and social media — are ultimately subject to the demands of viewers and users. Regulations aimed at preventing Chinese influence won’t be sufficient as they might replicate the kind of censorship seen in China.

Instead, education systems need to teach media literacy that will help consumers be more critical about the content they’re watching and reading, providing them with an understanding of history and the intellectual tools to challenge persuasion campaigns.

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