When Blizzard, an American video game company famous for World of Warcraft, hosted a tournament for their hugely popular game Hearthstone, the last thing they expected was to initiate an international diplomatic scandal involving several US senators and the Chinese government.
The instigator of this crisis was “Blitzchung”, a Hearthstone player from Hong Kong who is currently ranked seventh in the Asia-Pacific region, who decided to don a gas mask and proclaim “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age” on an official Blizzard livestream.
Repercussions were swift from the American based company, banning Blitzchung from playing professionally for a year and confiscating his prize money, citing a vague clause that prohibits “offend[ing] a portion or group of the public”.
An uproar ensued from the west, and Blizzard hastily reduced Blitzchung’s punishment and returned his prize money, but the damage was done and a precedent was set. The market for American entertainment in China is skyrocketing as the middle class grows, and increasingly American corporations are having to choose between passing up a hugely profitable demographic or compromising on the principle of free speech. A disturbing number a starting to consider the latter.
Despite the provocative extradition bill being declared officially “killed”, the protests in Hong Kong have no doubt triggered a deep existential and territorial panic amongst the Chinese top brass that we have yet to see even the beginning of. When General Manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted then quickly deleted his support for Hong Kong independence, the consequence was an embarrassingly unenthusiastic defence of Morey by the NBA which led to all Chinese sponsors cutting their ties and a total ban on screening Houston Rockets matches in China.
The damage one tweet can do to an American corporation’s financial success in China is troubling, as it may well lead to companies suppressing employees’ free speech in supposedly liberal strongholds like the USA, or as Mike Pence phrased it: “export[ed] censorship”. The NBA has already silenced a journalist at a press conference who dared to raise the issue, a deeply worrying move in the direction of money over truth.
Cinema is also being affected, with DreamWork’s latest animated film Abominable featuring a map that asserts China’s right to the South China Sea, a claim absolutely refuted by the UN. On the bright side, this issue seems to be the only thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, with everyone from Ted Cruz to AOC warning of China’s threat to the First Amendment.
However, more needs to be done to stop the greed of corporations from corrupting the essential values of democracy. China may be content with supressing the freedoms of their own citizens, but European and American nations must take the moral high ground and resist the profits or else risk desecrating their fundamental principles.
Written by Max Ingleby