Today’s entertainment news features an absolute gem of political hypocrisy: Vietnam’s one party ‘Communist’ state has banned the animated kids’ movie Abominable, and the Western media are heralding the decision, implying that Vietnam are standing up to China’s censorious one party ‘Communist’ state.
This is perhaps the dumbest employment of double standards I’ve encountered in years of reporting on the politics of popular culture.
The Banning of Abominable — Who, How, Why
Abominable is a CGI animated film about a Chinese girl who finds a Yeti living on her roof. It was produced by Dreamworks and the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, who are backed by the Chinese government.
One scene depicts a map of the South China Sea that features the Chinese government’s interpretation of the territorial disputes there, including the notorious ‘nine-dash line’.
The film was released in Vietnam on October 4th but was soon yanked from cinemas by Vietnam’s Minstry of Culture. Vietnam is one of several regional nations that dispute China’s claim to the resource rich South China Sea, and following an outcry from the Vietnamese public the government revoked the film’s distribution license. In effect, the Vietnamese public demanded political censorship, because they’re so accustomed to political censorship.
Oh, the Hypocrisy…
This ban has been widely reported by Western media (e.g. see here, here, here and here) but NOT as an example of one party ‘Communist’ states controlling what their people can see and hear in movie theaters.
Instead, the implication is that the brave, noble one party ‘Communist’ government of Vietnam are standing up to the corrupt, decadent one party ‘Communist’ government of China.
It is highly likely that the state-backed Pearl Studio were behind the decision to go with a Chinese protagonist and, quite possibly, the scene depicting the nine-dash line map. This is no different to US cinema laying claim to the term ‘American’ and only using it to apply to values, ideas and people from the US, rather than from the Americas as a whole. Or to Russian news depicting Crimea as part of the Russian Federation while Western European/US media depicts it as occupied territory.
Oral and visual representations of tribalism and territorialism are omnipresent in our popular culture, in both news and entertainment.
So it is hypocrisy of the first order for US news media to complain about China finally cottoning on and deploying pop culture as a geopolitical weapon, when the US government has been doing the same thing through Hollywood for over a century. And when pretty much every other country on earth has its own version of this.
To only criticise this when China does it (a la South Park, the animated equivalent of racist social media shitposting) goes beyond double standards, and turns almost the entire discussion of Chinese cinematic propaganda into… propaganda.
The Film Censorship Cold War — China vs the US
Both Countries Censor Hollywood and Use it as a Propaganda Vehicle
Viet-Commies Like to Censor Movies Too
The profound irony is that when China bans a US movie for (perceived anti-US) political reasons they are pilloried for it, but when Vietnam bans a US movie for (perceived anti-China) political reasons, they are praised for it.
But both countries are one party states that make dubious claims to being Communist, and both employ political censorship to control what the public in those countries get to see.
Indeed, Nguyen Thu Ha, the head of Vietnam’s Cinema Department, apologised for the mistake of not censoring Abominable. ‘I will claim responsibility’ she said, and promised to remind her censorship department ‘to be very vigilant… to be more prudent’ in the future.
Just like in China (and in many other countries) in Vietnam films are censored not just for sex and violence but also for ‘politically sensitive’ content deemed unsuitable for public consumption. For example, the Central Council for Film Evaluation did not allow the locally-produced Cho Lon’s Gangsters to be released without cuts, because it:
Contains elements of violence, which does not reflect the social reality of Vietnam, so the film can not be popularized.
Bizarrely, some of the reports on the banning of Abominable refer to other recent examples of Vietnamese film censorship:
The popular 2018 romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” saw a few snips. One of the cut scenes featured a designer bag with a map of the world showing disputed South China Sea islands under Beijing’s control.
This year’s hit “Joker”, starring Joaquin Phoenix, was also trimmed to exclude a scene of supporters rallying around the DC Comics villain — possibly to avoid any suggestion of a popular uprising or personality cult.
Once again, though, these reports do not criticise the Vietnamese one party state for preventing their public from seeing content considered politically unacceptable, even though they’ve spent the last several years criticising the Chinese one party state for doing the exact same thing.
So do these journalists actually care about censorship or authoritarian governments, or is this pure geopolitical PR? Why is it that our censorship (or that of our allies) is treated as though it isn’t really censorship, but when it’s them over there, the Other, then it’s doubleplusbad censorship?
That’s a Paddlin…
To be clear: I am opposed to all political censorship (though not to all censorship per se). I have a problem with the Chinese government banning the 3D version of Top Gun just as I have a problem with the Vietnamese government banning Abominable, just as I have a problem with the US government banning If You Love This Planet.
Unlike the spineless, sweating hacks that make up the majority of Hollywood journalists I am not swayed by the politics of who is doing the banning. To me — a non-aligned anarcho-peacenik — political censorship is political censorship, regardless of where in the world it is taking place or who is doing it.
Indeed, banning is a form of psychological and social repression and has become a means of ‘dealing with’ things that we don’t want to deal with.
Someone says something racist on Twitter? That’s a banning. A documentary producer wants to talk about suicide in the US military? That’s a banning. The Trump administration doesn’t like Muslims travelling? That’s a banning. Kids use phones in the classroom? That’s a banning.
In this latest case, rather than showing Vietnamese people the truth — that the Chinese government believes pretty much the whole South China Sea belongs to them — and maybe even developing constructive means to respond or resist, they simply pretend it isn’t happening. They repress the truth, and thus avoid having to deal with it.
Insult our national sensibilities and tribal myths about ourselves? That’s a paddlin…
Tom Secker is a journalist and author who specialises in government involvement in the entertainment industry. He has been using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unique government documents on Hollywood since 2014. His most recent book is National Security Cinema, you can find more of his work via his site Spy Culture.