WASHINGTON — One of the summer’s blockbuster movies, “Barbie,” arrives in theaters Friday amidst controversy.
A scene in the movie has longtime-critics of the People’s Republic of China accusing the filmmakers and Hollywood of caving to pressure from the Communist country.
“I don’t know if it was just an oversight or an accident or if it was intentional,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Select Committee on China. “Now, I suspect it’s the latter, just because I’ve seen so many instances of censorship and self-censorship by Hollywood.”
Gallagher said “Barbie” crosses the line by including the so-called “nine-dash line” in a cartoon-like map of Southeast Asia. China uses that line to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea — a claim rejected by an international court. The issue is so sensitive that Vietnam banned the movie.
Warner Bros. Film Group said the map was “not intended to make any kind of statement.” But Ann Lau, a Los Angeles-based free speech activist, said she isn’t buying that explanation.
“Even though they actually put in eight dashes in the nine-dash line, I’m sure they knew about it,” Lau said. “And they just wanted to please China.”
Lau and her family fled the Great Chinese Famine for Hong Kong in 1962.
“Within three months, the Hong Kong government finally started to send the people back to China,” Lau said. “The international community was saying that, if they sent these Chinese people back to China, these people will face repression.”
She was among 15,000 Chinese refugees able to relocate to the U.S. under then-president John F. Kennedy’s Hong Kong parole program.
“Because of that, I felt that it is so important that we have this right to speak about the facts or what’s going on around the world,” Lau said.
She now serves as the chair of the Visual Artists Guild, speaking out against the Chinese government and its economic influence over U.S. and global media.
“The problem with Hollywood bending to China is that it actually helps to promote China — what is called, soft power or soft propaganda — so that the general public of Americans would accept this notion that China is just like any other country,” Lau said.
Gallagher, Lau and other critics said Hollywood routinely self-censors to maintain access to China’s massive $4.6 billion film market. Gallagher has previously called out changes to the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” and last year’s blockbuster “Top Gun Maverick.” The former changed the nationality of the film’s antagonists from Chinese to North Korean. The latter digitally removed Taiwan’s flag from a character’s jacket before adding it back during its theatrical run.
Gallagher said he’s open to continuing this conversation on Capitol Hill.
“I’d love to have that conversation,” he said. “And by the way, if [Warner Bros.], in this case, wants to explain that it was just an innocent mistake, well, then I offer them a platform to come before our committee. We can do a closed-door session if they want.”
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. declined to respond to Gallagher’s invitation and comments.