Vietnam Bans Barbie Movie, Because ‘Map’

If there’s one thing we learned from “The West Wing,” it’s that Democrats need to find Republicans of goodwill who are willing to put America above partisan bickering, and … wait, that’s bullshit. But the episode where the “Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality” explained that maps can be very political, that one holds up pretty good. The Mercator projection really has encouraged “an imperialist European attitude for centuries and has created ethnic prejudices against the Third World,” and anyone who says otherwise is itchin’ for a fight.

Naturally enough, that brings us to the new Barbie movie directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie as the eponymous fashion doll. The trailer is ridiculously fun, but includes a detail that seems to have led the nation of Vietnam to ban distribution of the film. Namely, a cartoony world map includes a little bitty dashed line off the coast of “Asia,” and Vietnam says that means the movie endorses China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Here’s the trailer; the blink-and-you’ll miss it offense to Vietnam’s sovereignty appears at roughly the 1-minute mark, when Laurie Anderson Barbie Kate McKinnon Barbie advises Main Character Barbie she must go to the Real World and learn how human feet operate, we think.

The movie had been scheduled to open in Vietnam July 21, but Vietnam’s state media announced that the government banned the film Monday, as the AP explains:

The reports cited Vi Kien Thanh, director general of the Vietnam Cinema Department, as saying the National Film Evaluation Council made the decision. It said a map in the film shows China’s “nine-dash line,” which extends Beijing’s territorial claims far into waters that fall within areas claimed by Vietnam and other countries.

The “nine-dash line” is an arcane but sensitive issue for China and its neighbors that shows Beijing’s maritime border extending into areas claimed by other governments and encompasses most of the South China Sea. That has brought it into tense standoffs with the ASEAN nations of Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with Chinese fishing boats and military vessels becoming more aggressive in the disputed waters.

Here’s a map, drawn by professors Mark Raymond of the University of Oklahoma and David A. Welch of the University of Waterloo, in Canada-land, for their paper “What’s Really Going On in the South China Sea?” You can see why Vietnamese officials mockingly call the area claimed by China the “cow-tongue line.”

Map by Mark Raymond and David A. Welch

We should also point out that the map in the trailer only has eight dashes, so perhaps it depicts some other planet altogether.

State newspaper Vietnam Plus said that the inclusion of the squiggle in a cartoon map “distorts the truth, violates the law in general and violates sovereignty of Vietnamese territory in particular,” although it remains unclear how exactly the Barbie movie could in practical terms make the international boundary dispute any worse. The UN seems unlikely to determine that China can fish in the area because International Incident Barbie said so in a one-second clip.

Still, national pride and all that; no doubt patriotic Americans would be very put out if a Saudi-owned “news” network depicted part of the United States as belonging to a foreign country.

Screenshot of a 2020 Fox News map with Michigan's Upper Peninsula labeled

The AP reports that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, when asked about the matter Tuesday, did not consider life in plastic so fantastic, adding that

“China’s position on the South China Sea issue is clear and consistent.”

“We believe that the countries concerned should not link the South China Sea issue with normal cultural and people-to-people exchanges”

For what it’s worth — very little, since China ignored the decision altogether — a 2016 international tribunal in the Hague found China’s territorial claims to the waters had no merit, but as we just said in what’s now a redundant part of this sentence, China rejected the judgment and continues to claim the area.

So far, nobody involved with the movie has commented on how the controversial squiggle came to be included, although China is notorious for having its own angry reactions to western entertainment or sportsball players who express support for Hong Kong or Taiwan. Our own very deep foreign policy analysis concludes that somebody on the production staff said “well, better include the squiggle if we want to show this in China,” figuring that revenues from China would more than make up for any losses in Vietnam.

There’s nothing terribly new about this, either: Vietnam previously banned the 2022 film Uncharted and 2019’s Abominable for maps showing the Chinese Domination Squiggle. In fact, the scene in the latter completely forgettable kid flick led politicians in the Philippines to call for a boycott of all DreamWorks films, and Malaysia refused to distribute the movie until the scene was cut altogether.

As it happens, Vietnam also launched an investigation this week into the K-Pop group “Blackpink” because a website for its Vietnamese tour included a similarly offensive map. The tour organizer called the incident an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and pledged that the website had been updated, although the site remains down, Reuters reports.

Also, in the latest wrinkle of this developing international crisis, the Philippines is debating whether to ban Barbie as well.

How silly all these foreigns are, launching boycotts and censoring an innocent entertainment over such a nothingburger!

Meanwhile, in the Freest, Greatest, Most Liberty-est Nation on Earth, we’re firing teachers and banning books over the fear that encouraging everyone to get along and accept each other’s differences will lead to nine-year-olds falling into a life of depravity, or because schools might accurately depict our very real history.

Also, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) has now twice condemned the Barbie movie, tweeting yesterday that

Leftist Hollywood’s new ‘Barbie’ movie shows a map that supports Communist China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea.

Looks like ‘Barbie’ is bending to Beijing to make a quick buck.

Blackburn followed that up today by insisting that we all take her seriously, since a fun summer movie about a pop culture icon is actually causing human rights abuses, no really she is serious, if that squiggle were removed, the camps would be opened and the Uyghurs would be freed.

Hollywood & the Left are more concerned with selling films in Communist China than standing up to the regime’s human rights abuses.

The ‘Barbie’ movie’s depiction of a map endorsing Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea is legally & morally wrong and must be taken seriously.

Strangely, not a single Republican has stepped forward to demand that Mattel include realistic genitals on Ken and Barbie, since surely the dolls as they’ve existed for 70 years encourage androgyny.

[AP / NYT / CNBC / Reuters / Sage Journals]

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Ground Zero | China’s massive Hainan bet

On March 10, 2023, Xi Jinping officially began his precedent-defying third term, with the ceremonial National People’s Congress (NPC) confirming him as China’s President for the next five years. The first decade of the Xi era, which was defined by China’s return to one-man rule and the end of the collective leadership model, came to a close with three years of the ‘zero-COVID’ policy essentially walling China off from the rest of the world.

A decade into what Beijing has declared as “a new era” under Xi, China stands at a crossroads. Beijing is facing searching questions about its place in the world, and many observers, both within China and abroad, are asking if the reform era, which saw China opening up and integrating with the world, has ended. Three years of isolation only reinforced those perceptions.

A grand plan for Hainan

Forty years ago, China stood at a similar crossroads. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping embarked on a “southern tour” to give his stalled reforms a second wind from Shenzhen, just three years after the events at Tiananmen had shaken China and the world. Xi appeared to be taking a leaf out of the Deng play book when, right after last year’s NPC session, he decided to begin the last year of his second term with his own southern tour.

File photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping delivering a speech via video link in Hainan Province.
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Xi headed even further south, to the island province of Hainan, where he called for accelerating plans to build what is being billed as China’s first “Free Trade Port” (FTP). That trip ended up going largely unnoticed given the messy end to Xi’s second term that came in the following months. There were numerous, harsh zero-COVID lockdowns, including in Hainan; unprecedented protests in November; and finally, the sudden, almost overnight, withdrawal of the policy the following month.

A picture of Haikou in China’s southern Hainan province.

A picture of Haikou in China’s southern Hainan province.
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Now that the zero-COVID walls have come down and Xi has secured his third term, Beijing’s focus is turning to kick-starting its beleaguered economy that is grappling with not only the after-effects of COVID policies, but other long-persisting problems, such as rising local government debt and an ailing property sector. Complicating its efforts are worsening relations with the West and the U.S. in particular, and trade and technology tensions that threaten to derail Beijing’s quest to become the world’s largest economy and a leading global innovation power.

Xi’s plans for Hainan offer a clue into China’s broader strategy to deal with these headwinds and to deepen its position as an economic lynchpin for the region. The FTP blueprint is certainly ambitious. Last year, Xi called for accelerating the first phase of the plan, which aims to establish the 35,000 sq km island as China’s most open economic region by 2025. The ultimate goal is to build a tropical Dubai in the middle of the South China Sea by 2035. The stakes for Beijing and the region are enormous. “After Shenzhen and Shanghai,” says Wang Daxue, an official with the Hainan government, “this will be the third most important event in China’s reform and opening up history.” The jury, however, is out on whether Hainan will be a transformative success story like Shenzhen or underwhelm, like Shanghai’s much-celebrated free trade zone launched a decade ago.

Residental buildings in Sanya, in China’s southern Hainan province.

Residental buildings in Sanya, in China’s southern Hainan province.
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Experiments under way

Hainan, a lush tropical island that is closer to Hanoi than Beijing, is an unlikely location for a potential global trading hub. It is located just off the Chinese mainland in the crystal-clear waters of the South China Sea. Tourism drives its economy, with millions of mainland tourists descending on the island every year to enjoy its tropical weather and beaches. Home to 10 million people, the island was carved out of Guangdong province and given its own administrative status in 1988. Since then, it has been used as a testing ground for economic reform policies. Property reforms in the early 1990s were rolled out in Hainan and later across China, heralding a real estate boom. This ended up driving Chinese economic growth for three decades.

The FTP plan, by 2035, will essentially establish Hainan as a separate administrative trading entity within China. At its heart is what’s being called the “free flow through the first line, control at the second line” model. Goods can enter the “first line” from overseas to Hainan freely, with the usual customs scrutiny kicking in only at the “second line” if they subsequently enter the Chinese mainland. This is a first-of-its-kind trading arrangement for China. The plan proposes “five frees” — another first for China — referring to free trade, investment, cross-border capital flows, transportation, and exit and entry. How “free,” particularly on the fifth point, remains uncertain, given China’s generally tight immigration controls.

The broader idea is to attract foreign enterprises — particularly from Southeast Asia, given its proximity — to use Hainan as a base for trade, offering incentives such as zero tariffs and the lowest tax rate in China.

Haikou, the sprawling and modern capital in the northern edge of the island, and Sanya, a tourist paradise and a naval base in the far south, are the twin economic engines for the plan. The infrastructure is already in place. A bullet train link constructed in 2010 runs all along the island’s eastern coast, covering the 300 km distance between the two cities in a little over 90 minutes.

Since the announcement of the FTP in 2018, the plan’s progress has been measured steady, if unspectacular. Three years of zero-COVID have hardly been the best advertisement for openness. The province’s $64 billion GDP ranks it fourth from bottom of China’s 31 provinces, only higher than the western provinces of Ningxia, Qinghai and Tibet. In 2021, foreign investment stood at $3.5 billion. The number of foreign-funded companies had, however, close to doubled, to a little under 2,000.

On Sanya’s northeastern suburbs is a cluster of high-rise buildings. The “tax-free city” is still a work in progress — massive construction cranes dot the landscape — but there were long lines on a recent afternoon outside luxury goods stores. For years, Chinese consumers have travelled abroad to lap up luxury goods, from Louis Vuitton handbags to Tiffany jewellery. The idea now, explains Zhao Jing, a director at the Tax-Free City, is to redirect them within China. The rules of the city allow Chinese citizens to purchase goods duty-free, as long as they have a flight ticket out of Sanya to anywhere in the mainland. Once purchased, the goods will be kept for pick up at Sanya airport. The elaborate arrangements are to prevent black market sales.

People wait in line to enter an Alexander McQueen store at a shopping complex in Sanya, Hainan province, China.

People wait in line to enter an Alexander McQueen store at a shopping complex in Sanya, Hainan province, China.
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Duty-free goods and free trade aren’t the only experiments under way in Hainan; the island is also serving as a testing ground for China’s new energy transport policies. By 2030, Hainan will completely ban the sale of fuel cars. The surge in electric vehicles (EV) on the streets of Haikou — easily noticed by their green licence plates — is among the fastest in China, because of a tax exemption policy. The number of electric cars in the province has risen from 20,577 units in 2018 to a massive 1,91,937 in 2022, up from 1.62% to now 10.46% of all vehicles. This is the highest proportion anywhere in China. Also noticeable is that a majority of the cars are domestic brands. The only overseas EV manufacturer in the top five, as of sales in 2021, was Tesla. It ranked fifth, accounting for 5% of the market, trailing behind Chinese car-maker BYD, which has a 14.4% share.

The Sanya shopping complex.

The Sanya shopping complex.
| Photo Credit:

Experimentation has been critical to the success of economic reforms in China, going back to the 1980s. Policies have been first tested in select cities or regions. Those that worked were rolled out elsewhere, while those that failed were quietly discarded. This is why, Hainan’s officials explain, the FTP is being rolled out in stages to see what works before 2035. Beijing hopes that by then, Hainan will be giving Hong Kong some competition.

Hurdles to cross

There are, however, several hurdles that remain. One major reason why the reforms process, described by Deng as crossing the river while feeling the stones, worked previously was the political decentralisation pushed by Deng. Provinces were given space to work out their own policies. Perhaps the single biggest political legacy of the Xi era has been rolling back the autonomy of provinces. In recent interviews, officials in two local provinces said recent years had seen some policy paralysis in the bureaucracy because the fear of getting decisions wrong was overwhelming, so much so that doing nothing was a safer option. To what degree Hainan’s opening will be micromanaged by Beijing or left to local officials remains an open question.

Another major hurdle, as far as foreign investors will be concerned, is about the legal protections on offer. Hainan’s FTP plan promises international standards. Over the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years, China enacted a range of judicial reforms to professionalise the courts and create conditions that would enable an inflow of foreign investment and enterprises, which worked remarkably well in attracting business despite China’s party-controlled legal system. However, the current perception among most foreign companies is that the past decade has seen a rolling back of already modest judicial autonomy and a reassertion of party control.

The other broader tension of the past decade has been between the desire to integrate China more closely with the world economically while exercising Chinese power more assertively. Some of the same countries that Beijing is looking to attract to Hainan are those that are contesting Beijing’s tightening military grip in the South China Sea.

Relations with India are another case in point. A burgeoning trade relationship continues, but the flood of Chinese investment into India, which both countries had, prior to 2020, seen as a positive force for economic integration, has reduced to a trickle following the People’s Liberation Army’s transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). While the LAC, and the stalemate in India-China relations, remain unresolved, Xi has begun his third term by appearing to course-correct, at least tactically, elsewhere, and woo the region amid Beijing’s primary strategic challenge — worsening relations with the U.S. China is positioning itself as the defender of globalisation and of developing countries, a message that a Belt and Road summit later this year is expected to reinforce.

Indeed, this is also the broader message of the Hainan project. “Hainan is a vivid example of China’s commitment to the future,” says Zhou Li, a Counsellor at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. “It highlights China’s resolution of further opening. A free trade port represents the world’s highest level of opening up, and demonstrates that China’s door will not close, but open wider and wider.”

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US secures key military deal with the Philippines to counter Beijing’s growing regional influence

The Philippines signed an agreement with the United States on Thursday that will allow American soldiers free access to four of its new military bases at a time of growing unease in the Indo-Pacific region over China’s burgeoning influence.

The deal, which was sealed during a February 1 visit to Manila by the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, means more US troops near China and would enable Washington to better monitor Chinese movements in the disputed South China Sea and around Taiwan.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr granted the US army access to four additional military bases, mainly in the north of the archipelago. American soldiers, who already have access to five Philippine military bases, would also use these bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies and building facilities, but not to establish a permanent presence.

Back to pro-Washington

The benefit of this military agreement for Washington may seem obvious: “It allows, first of all, to complete the military encirclement of China in the China Sea region. In the north, the United States can use the American base in Okinawa, Japan, and the bases in South Korea, while in the south, American power can now be asserted from the bases in the Philippines,” said Danilo delle Fave, a specialist in security issues in Asia and associate researcher at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, an international group of experts in international security issues.

More importantly, it signals a return to a pro-Washington stance for a country that occupies a key geostrategic position at a time when the US and China are waging a war of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US administration can “finally say again that it can count on the Philippines in the event of a conflict with Beijing”, said Tom Smith, an expert on the Philippines and security issues in Southeast Asia at Portsmouth University.

Historically, the archipelago has had a love-hate relationship with the US. On paper, Manila is Washington’s oldest regional ally by virtue of a military cooperation agreement dating back to 1951.

But the reality is far more complex. Firstly, because of serious issues linked to the huge US-owned military bases – handed over in the early 1990s – that damaged the reputation of the US military. “There were cases of sex trafficking and prostitution that have left their mark,” Smith said.

Nor was the Philippines of particular strategic importance to the US in the East-West confrontation that dominated the Cold War years.

But Washington again began to make diplomatic overtures towards Manila “after the September 11 attacks, because the Philippines was viewed as a potentially useful ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism”, Smith said. The US army started training Filipino soldiers to better fight the Abu Sayyaf terrorist movement, which has a strong presence in the southern Philippine islands.

A bridge between regions

Since then, the Philippines’ strategic value has only increased. The country has “regained the same importance as it had during the Second World War”, said delle Fave. At that time the Philippines was the main land barrier between Asia and the United States. During the Second World War it blocked the way to Japan, whereas today it limits the scope of China’s operations.

In the eyes of both Washington and Beijing, “the Philippines is a bridge between the two regions – America and Asia – and whoever is favoured by Manila can assert themselves more easily on one side of the Pacific or the other”, delle Fave explained.

Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte between 2016 and 2022, the US watched nervously as its oldest Asian “ally” edged closer to China. The controversial former Philippine leader openly courted Beijing, proclaiming his ideological allegiance to the Chinese regime, while repeatedly criticising former US president Barack Obama.

Duterte offered his allegiances to Beijing in exchange for some promises of investment in infrastructure and the abandonment of Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands, which have been at the heart of Sino-Philippine tensions since the 1990s.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has led the Philippines since June 2022, had pursued a similar foreign policy strategy and sought to “deepen collaboration with Beijing” when he visited there in early January.

Into the arms of the Americans

But just three weeks later, the Philippine government made an unexpected 180° turn by signing a new military agreement with the US. “The failure of Duterte’s diplomatic approach is essentially due to Chinese intransigence regarding Beijing’s territorial claims on the Spartleys,” delle Fave explained.

In the last six years, Beijing not only refused to compromise but failed to increase investments in the Philippines. The January trip was a way for Marcos Jr. to offer China one last chance before “recognising that the US offer is the most attractive to Manila”, said Smith. The US offer included a promise to defend the Philippine fleet if it is attacked by the Chinese in the disputed South China Sea, a potential key flashpoint.

China’s uncompromising stance appears to have driven the Philippines into the arms of the Americans, but it could come back to bite them. Not only will Beijing find it more difficult to play hardball in the South China Sea now that there are US troops stationed in the Philippines, but these new bases are just over 300 km from Taiwan, strengthening the US’s ability to intervene if a conflict erupts between China and Taiwan.

“China preferred the certainty of having a foothold on the islands it claims rather than a pledge of allegiance from a country that has already changed its mind several times,” said delle Fave.

The Chinese are far from having had their final say.

Beijing authorities on Thursday denounced the signing of the new military agreement, saying it would contribute to fuelling tensions in the region. But “raising the tone on the Chinese side is only the first step”, according to Smith. He believes that China will want to prove that it can continue to navigate safely in Philippine territorial waters. This will likely lead to more incidents involving Chinese and Filipino vessels. But for the time being, none of the countries involved – China, the Philippines and the United States – seem to have any interest in seeing such incidents escalate into a full-blown security crisis.   

This article is a translation of the original in French.


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