Yesterday, professional Hearthstone player and Hong Kong citizen Blitzchung gave a post-match interview where he said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age,” a single sentence showing support for the protesters in Hong Kong fighting against perceived tyranny and overreach by mainland China, a conflict starting as worry over an extradition law that has grown into a persistent, escalating global news story.
In response, Activision Blizzard removed Blitzchung from upcoming tournaments, rescinded his prize money and even fired the interviewers who were present. The feed quickly cut away, and the moment is nowhere to be found on the English stream of the match or post-match festivities. Blizzard cited their own Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules to justify the decision:
Engaging in any act that, in Blizard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.
While that is technically a description of what happened, it’s important to note that Blizzard’s image here was damaged solely in the eyes of one entity: The People’s Republic of China, where Blizzard makes lots and lots of money.
Activision Blizzard made over a billion dollars in Asia last year, a number that grows every year. And back in 2016, while the Warcraft movie based on Blizzard’s most important IP bombed in the United States, it more than doubled its budget in China alone.
Most lawmakers and representatives of the free world support Hong Kong in this conflict, as China is using authoritarian tactics to try to quell the uprising in a sense that’s eerily reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. Activision Blizzard is an American company that purports to support American ideals such as free speech and democracy, but as China becomes a bigger and bigger percentage of companies’ bottom lines, appeasing the communist dictatorship becomes a higher and higher priority.
Here in the United States, lawmakers across the isle are in agreement that Blizzard’s action was wrong, and sets a dangerous precedent.
Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck. https://t.co/rJBeXUiwYS
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) October 8, 2019
“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” Democratic senator Ron Wyden said. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone. https://t.co/Cx3tkWc7r6
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) October 8, 2019
“Recognize what’s happening here,” Republican senator Marco Rubio chimed in on Twitter. “People who don’t live in China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”
Indeed, Blizzard’s decision to protect China’s image nakedly based on nothing but profit is part of a disturbing trend, but they certainly aren’t the only company making the same decisions. Earlier this week, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey apologized for a tweet he sent over the weekend supporting the Hong Kong protestors at the behest of the NBA.
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together,” the NBA said in a statement. But again, representatives across the country called BS on the NBA’s statement. “Chinese govt has a million people locked in concentration camps & is trying to brutally repress Hong Kong demonstrators – and NBA wants to “bridge cultural divides”?” junior Missouri senator Josh Hawley asked.
New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski asked why the NBA rightly has no problem with employees criticizing the United States government but draws the line at criticizing China’s. “This is shameful and cannot stand,” he said.
The NBA draws 800 million viewers a year in China, and is a $4 billion industry there.
ESPN, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, sent a memo to all of its anchors and analysts instructing them to steer clear of any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, instead only discussing how it affects upcoming basketball games.
Disney is one of the biggest companies on the planet, and their movies are massively successful in China. Avengers: Endgame made over $600 million in China alone, and Disney owns two of the region’s biggest theme parks.
It’s not difficult to find the common thread here. This isn’t a story about American companies suddenly finding a newfound respect and reverence for communist, authoritarian dictatorships. It’s about the money. It’s about putting profits over people and values.
Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, made an apt analogy on Twitter:
It’s not hard to understand that carmakers in the US market build to California emissions standards because they are the strictest – it’s the most efficient choice.
Not a leap to think global companies will hold themselves to China’s speech restrictions for the same reason.
— nilay patel (@reckless) October 9, 2019
This is the real danger here. The goal of capitalism is nonstop growth, and an important component of that strategy is expansion in new markets. There is no bigger market than China, so it becomes imperative for giant multinational corporations to do well there.
Unfortunately, China’s appalling stance on human rights and democracy put them at odds with those of the western world, creating these strange bedfellows such as Disney, a company represented by saccharine, empowering cartoon characters, implicitly supporting brutal work camps and silencing of free speech. Movies, television shows, and video games are being created specifically with Chinese interests in mind, which means they have to align with Chinese values. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see the value in any art that is created in fear of and hopes to appease an anti-humanitarian government.
This sets a dangerous precedent where the largest media companies on the planet are creating content in alignment with a government whose values run contra to that of the western world. This is not just silencing free speech; it’s actively propping up an anti-free speech viewpoint.
Nobody expected a company like Activision Blizzard to explicitly come out in support of the Hong Kong protests, but still, their stance of censorship and appeasement is extremely disheartening. Blizzard used to truly be a different publisher — a small company working on a small handful games that they truly believed in and poured their hearts and souls into. Games weren’t released until they were ready, but their fans were almost never upset by that, because any delay meant that Blizzard was simply making the experience better. They had earned players’ trust.
Since merging with Activision in 2008, Blizzard’s reputation amongst gamers slowly declined as their practices began to make it clear they were now “just another video game company.” This latest move has hurt their reputation even worse, putting them in the upper echelon of most hated gaming companies alongside EA. Social media including Blizzard’s subreddits have been ablaze with anger, calls for protest, and memes deriding the company. However, it remains to be seen if their bottom line will be affected all that much, and it’s now abundantly clear that that is the only thing that matters to Activision Blizzard, above not only quality games, but even human rights.