The 9-dash line, the Barbie movie, and media failures

Recently there’s been a lot of traffic on China Twitter pillorying Hollywood for allegedly repeating Chinese propaganda talking points by reproducing the infamous 9-dash line (which outlines China’s nebulous claims to a large swathe of the South China Sea) in a map shown in the new Barbie movie.

The story started when Vietnam, citing this offense, banned the movie. The problem is that none of the media reports I’ve found, although they include an obligatory Barbie scene, actually show the scene Vietnam found offensive. (Here’s a typical story from the New York Times.) No reporter or editor seems to have thought it worthwhile to check Vietnam’s claim to see whether it’s justified.

I don’t know what the Vietnamese government saw. The only evidence I’ve seen so far is the screenshot below that is circulating on Twitter:

Where is the 9-dash line? If you squint carefully, you can see a dotted line in a reverse-S shape emanating from “Asia” on the right-hand side of the map. This line encloses nothing and just peters out in the middle of nowhere. If this is the 9-dash line, it’s as interpreted by Picasso. You can also see some dotted lines immediately to the right of Barbie’s head. This suggests that whatever the dotted lines are doing in the map, they’re not representing Chinese claims to anything. Yet the serious, mainstream media has uncritically reported the Vietnamese claim as fact without doing anything to verify it.

I am not claiming that the Vietnamese are deliberately lying or trying to fool people. They are understandably sensitive about Chinese claims and the 9-dash line. But if the above photo is the basis of their claim that the Barbie movie has reproduced the 9-dash line, all you need to do is look at it to see that they are seeing things that just aren’t there. And the media has failed us in not pointing this out, or at least in not allowing readers to judge for themselves.

Incidentally, if you want to know what it looks like when Hollywood does reproduce Chinese claims, here’s the 9-dash line quite unambiguously in Abominable, something for which the producers were called out on at the time.