The Nationalism of Banning Movies

The Nationalism of Banning Movies

The recent decision of the Vietnamese authorities to ban “Barbie” has generated much reaction from the Vietnamese public and international watchers. The decision was made by the National Evaluation Film Council as it cited the movie’s alleged showing of China’s nine-dash line.

This is not the first time the Vietnamese authorities have decided to ban movies over the appearance of the nine-dash line. However, the decision to ban “Barbie” has been criticized more than previous bans, as the map the authorities are referring to is unclear. For example, many news outlets and netizens have questioned whether the child-like fictional map in “Barbie” actually shows the nine-dash line.

Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer questioned the move by the Vietnamese authorities, arguing that it does not contribute anything to the country’s national security as “it distracts the public from China's aggressive behavior that has been taking place.”

So Why Did the Authorities Ban “Barbie”?

While the decision seems to be a mere example of overreach and paranoia of the propaganda machine, it is a part of the continuous image of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) being the defender of Vietnam’s national interests. It seems like an irrational decision, but the controversial propaganda machine helps the VCP gain nationalist points without confronting China in any official capacity.

According to international relations scholar Le Hong Hiep, the VCP regime relies on two main sources of legitimacy to justify its monopoly of power. Performance-based legitimacy is a major tactic used by many modern authoritarian regimes, including Vietnam. According to this theory, a government (even an authoritarian one) remains legitimate if it successfully delivers socioeconomic growth.

At the same time, however, the VCP still undeniably wants to maintain its nationalist credentials. The overarching narrative that the Party pushes has always been the “inevitability” of Communist rule of the nation, and for the VCP is the only rightful heir to be the nation's ruler.

However, this narrative is complicated by the party’s ideological alignment with China amidst territorial disputes in the South China Sea, spurring many nationalist protests in Vietnam. These protests have, in the past, snowballed into pro-democracy protests.

Hence, anti-China nationalism is a double-edged sword. The VCP faces the dilemma of tolerating anti-China demonstrations, for it does not want to be seen as being soft on foreign aggression. At the same time, it also does not want to jeopardize its ideological and economic relationship with China.

As a result, in making their controversial censorship decisions on major Hollywood films, the VCP can gain nationalist credit without actually confronting China. There is a significant financial cost to these decisions as box offices in Vietnam lose out on many profitable movies, while the party uses these decisions to present an image of being tough on China without really irritating its superpower neighbor.

Hence, as irrational as it looks, banning movies like “Barbie” serves a dual purpose: it gains nationalist credit without confronting China and prevents anti-China nationalism inside the country from turning into protests.

Do Vietnamese People Actually Buy this Narrative?

We do not know the extent to which the public in Vietnam actually sees the VCP as the country’s protector against Chinese aggression. The saying “Trường Sa, Hoàng Sa belong to Vietnam” has become a catchphrase among young Vietnamese people who want to showcase their nationalism. In addition, the online presence of party defenders, such as the Facebook page Tifosi has gathered the attention of many young Vietnamese.

There have not been any significant anti-China demonstrations for many years, but this could be explained by the people’s general satisfaction with the VCP or the party's intolerance towards protests. In the current political climate in Vietnam, it is extremely difficult to actually find out the extent of citizen trust in the system.

However, we can look at China itself for some hypotheses. Interestingly, China also has a similarly complicated relationship with anti-foreign nationalism. In the chapter "How Nationalistic Is China?," political scientist Bruce J. Dickson made the observation that China also carefully treads the line between promoting and constraining nationalism.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to promote the narrative that patriotism equals supporting the party. It does so by trying to convince its citizens that foreign powers had oppressed China in the past and the CCP was and remains the liberator of China.

The CCP, like its counterpart in Vietnam, relies heavily on nationalism as a source of legitimacy. Yet, anti-foreign nationalism has triggered unrest in mainland China in the past, such as the anti-Japanese protests in 2012 that snowballed into anti-government protests.

Dickson observed that many young Chinese people made up the mass of an “angry youth” that repeatedly attacked Japan and the United States for humiliating China, making it seem that Chinese youths are becoming more nationalistic. In contrast, through a series of public opinion polls, Dickson argues that young Chinese people are actually becoming less nationalistic compared to their elders.

The reason why many observers of Chinese politics think that Chinese youth are nationalistic is because of the loud voices of radical students on social media. These young people, often college-aged students or urban internet users, are extremely loud on social media, which skews observers' perception of the overall sentiment of young people, disregarding the others who might not be as active on social media platforms.

While it is unclear whether this pattern in China also applies to young people in Vietnam, it poses the question of whether Vietnamese people actually buy the VCP’s narratives because while as loud as they are, the party defenders, such as on the Facebook page Tifosi, are simply not representative of the population.

One thing is certain, though: anti-China nationalism is a very powerful phenomenon in Vietnam. Due to the VCP’s fear of anti-China demonstrations, it will continue to make seemingly irrational moves, like banning the movie “Barbie,” not only to earn credit as a nationalist choice but also to appease potential protesters.


  1. “Chinese Fighter Jet Flies in Front of U.S. Aircraft Over South China Sea.” NBC News, 7 July 2023,
  2. Dickson, Bruce. The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century. Princeton UP, 2023.
  3. Le, Hong Hiep. Performance-based Legitimacy: The Case of the Communist Party of Vietnam and “Doi Moi.” Aug. 2012,
  4. Nguyen, Son. “Why Did the Vietnamese Communist Party Suppress Anti-China Nationalism?” The Vietnamese Magazine, July 2021,
  5. RFA Vietnamese. “China’s ‘Nine-dash Line’ South China Sea Claims Trip up Barbie, BlackPink in Vietnam.” Radio Free Asia, 5 July 2023,
  6. The Vietnamese Magazine. “Vietnam Bans ‘Barbie’ Movie Over Perceived Feature of China-Invented ‘Nine-Dash Line.’” The Vietnamese Magazine, July 2023,

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