October 9, 2019
Gaming company Activision Blizzard suspended an eSports player who, during a live broadcast, expressed his support for the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Professional “Hearthstone” player Chung Ng Wai has been suspended for a year and forced to give up $10,000 in prize money. The move led to a significant backlash from gamers and politicians via social media and online forums. The public relations dilemma is similar to what played out this week following NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s support of free speech, which led to the decision by China’s state-run television not to broadcast two NBA games.
The NBA has been pushing global expansion into China and elsewhere, and the preseason games were part of that larger initiative.
However, when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong movement over the weekend, Silver faced a problem, especially after his initial statement was viewed as lacking enough support for Morey and led to accusations that the league was more concerned with its Chinese business interests than its employees and free speech.
Silver then made a stronger statement of support that led to a negative response by China.
“The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many global companies seeking to do business in a Communist country with 1.4 billion people: Any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy,” reports The New York Times. “China Central Television, the state broadcaster, made clear the risks of challenging Beijing, chiding the league for an earlier expression of support for Morey’s free speech rights.”
Additionally, numerous Chinese companies announced their plans to suspend partnerships with the NBA as a result of the conflict.
While much of the related comments from professional athletes and coaches in the U.S. have focused on a free society and the right to free speech, they originated from individuals who are not experts in China or international relations. Hong Kong-based pro-gamer Chung (above), known as Blitzchung, took a more aggressive stance regarding the protest movement.
“In a post-match interview with the Taiwan stream of ‘Hearthstone’,” notes NYT, Chung “appeared with ballistic goggles and a gas mask, protective gear often worn by protesters during demonstrations in Hong Kong.” In Mandarin, he shouted a popular protest slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
Activision Blizzard suspended Chung based on its rule that does not allow any action that brings players “into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages” the brand’s image.
U.S. politicians responded on Twitter. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) suggested that Activision Blizzard showed “it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” and “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweeted, “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.”
“Several companies have recently apologized after offending Chinese sensitivities, or have pre-emptively self-censored to ensure that they do not lose access to the lucrative Chinese market,” explains NYT.
Meanwhile, Reddit threads are filled with critical comments and calls to cancel game subscriptions. Mark Kern, who led the team that developed “World of Warcraft,” canceled his subscription with the knowledge that his announcement on Twitter could hurt his career.
“Kern, who lived in Hong Kong as a teenager, said the company’s actions were ‘a deterioration of Blizzard values that really broke my heart’,” NYT reports.
“It’s one thing to stay out of politics in games, quite another to take harsh, punitive actions designed to appease a government whose values are against what Blizzard has traditionally stood for,” he wrote.
One of America’s Biggest Gaming Companies Is Acting as China’s Censor, Vox, 10/8/19
‘South Park’ Creators Issue a Mocking ‘Apology’ to China After the Show Was Reportedly Banned in the Country, Business Insider, 10/7/19