China Reckoning

The integrity of China was more important than [the people] in Tiananmen Square.

-Muammar al-Gaddafi, in an insightful moment

Well, here we are.

Just so you know, I’ll get to this eventually

China certainly has been in the news of late for its noxious behavior, not that noxious behavior is anything new from the authoritarian government that runs the country.  Its legitimacy is built on a foundation of things like the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square.  And while they’ve ditched most of the economic aspect of Mao’s teachings, they’re are still big on the repressive state thing.

As a rule, the government of China has also been pretty intolerant of any criticism, express or implied.  For example, if another country mentions Tibet or meets with, or even allows into their territory, the Dalai Lama, they can expect an official diplomatic protest from China.  Make a map that doesn’t show Taiwan as part of China or, even worse, refers to Taiwan as a country and you can expect an angry response from China.

Internally, in addition to the usual level of arbitrary police state activities, there is the Orwellian social credit system, which will soon be mandatory, that rewards pro-government activities with perks, while denying things to people doing things that the government does not like… which includes merely being connected to anybody the government does not like.  A social network that rewards you for ostracizing non-conformists… more so.

More recently they have been sending their citizens to “re-education” camps for the crime of being Muslim and battling a now nearly 18 week long series of protest in Hong Kong over an extradition law that would allow residents of the special administrative region to be extradited to China proper, where the rule of law is what the government says it is at any given moment.

That is the foundation on which the last week or so has been laid.

Then there is the trade war.  Our president, who says trade wars are good and easy to win, has been actively pursuing one with China for some time now.  The president has been quite vocal about China, saying we do not need them and that US companies should go elsewhere.  Of course, he also promised China he wouldn’t mention the protest in Hong Kong either, so not a lot of moral high ground there. (He also praised the strength of the Chinese government for gunning down students in Tienanmen Square back when it happened, so he never had any moral high group to begin with.)  But he has highlighted the long simmering perception that US companies are shipping jobs to China in exchange for higher profits.

Then in the last week or so we had things like John Oliver… don’t mention him in China… reporting on China’s one child policy, which is now a two child policy, double the children allowed but all the same government abuse remains, and the South Park episode “Band in China,” which went after US companies willing to do just about anything to make China happy in order to make more money.

That brings up to last Friday when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey tweeted a message in support of the protesters in Hong Kong.  This drew an immediate response from the Chinese government, saying the tweet had outraged fans in China which cancelled all future interactions with the team.

By Monday the NBA was apologizing, the owner of the Rockets expressed his regret, and Morey himself was on Twitter apologizing for causing any offense.  The NBA is in full on appease China mode.  NBA fans were not happy about this and started holding up signs that would no doubt offend the Chinese government, so the NBA began ejecting fans from games.  There is even a fun video you can find of somebody holding up a pro Hong Kong sign on the public sidewalk outside of the NBA headquarters being told by the security guard that they would have him arrested if he didn’t move along.

We’re used to companies like Apple or Google doing what China says for years.  They’ve both been pulling apps from their stores in China that the government does not like, including one that tracks police activity and another that merely allowed access to a new source that mentioned the problems in Hong Kong.  But now China has moved to dictating what can go on at NBA games being played in the United States.

And Blizzard stepped right into this already flaming bag of dog shit on Tuesday when they announced that the professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, who is from Hong Kong, would be suspended from play for one year and have all of his prize money “rescinded” for saying, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” on a post game stream where he was being interviewed.  Blizzard also cut ties with the two broadcasters who were doing the interview despite neither of them doing anything beyond looking doomed by what was just said.  They knew China.

And now people outside of China are rightfully pissed off at Blizzard.

I heard the argument that NetEase runs Blizzard’s operations in China and that it was they who actually precipitated the action and released the noxious statement afterwards, but that doesn’t really matter, true or not.  Whoever did it, did so in Blizzard’s name, and Blizzard went along with it, so it might as well have all come straight from J. Allen Brack’s.  He gets the power, he gets the money, and he gets the blame.

So now we are into the #BoycottBlizzard era.

It has become a time to pressure the company to try and do the right thing.  I am not sure exactly what that “right thing” is.  I doubt Blizzard will be able to do something… will be able to do anything… that will make everybody happy.  But even the NBA stood up just a bit… or pretended to, anyway… and said they wouldn’t regulate what players or team owners said, not officially, though that still doesn’t apply to fans. (And given player and team official comments since that statement, the NBA has clearly told them what to avoid saying.  And after GSW coach Steve Kerr defended China’s human rights record, the NBA cancelled all press interaction.  No doubt they need to get all their stories straight and cleared by Beijing.)

People have been cancelling WoW subscriptions to let Blizzard know how they feel about their actions.  I have cancelled mine, putting “Hong Kong” in the text field on the exit survey.  My account still has some time left to run, and I’ll keep playing WoW Classic as that runs down, both because I paid for that time and because I hold out hope that Blizzard will do something, sooner rather than later.  Ongoing silence could change that, and worse behavior certainly will, but I’ll give them at least until BlizzCon.  They need to do something before BlizzCon or they might be looking back longingly at the Diablo Immortal announcement.  It has been suggested that they might even cancel BlizzCon.  We shall see.  Still, I have sent them the economic message, the only message that counts:  No more money from me.

That is the nice thing about a subscription based game.  You can effectively vote with your wallet.  That stings more than a petition, but you can sign that too if you want. (There are a few of those, that was just the most popular one I saw.)  Players of their free to play titles have taken to deleting their accounts, since not paying is the default behavior. (Rumors that Blizz was blocking account deletion at one point do not seem to hold water.  Somebody had a problem and it quickly turned into a conspiracy theory from what I can tell. Your mileage may vary.)

But I am not kidding myself.  I am not changing the world here.  Withholding financial support only punishes Blizzard, not China, and any real effects will likely be felt by employees, some of who are equally unhappy with Blizzard’s actions, who may end up getting laid off.  J. Allen Brack or Bobby Kotick or whoever else makes these sorts of decisions will keep their jobs.  But maybe they’ll make better choices going forward.

Remember that.  The goal ought to be to change Blizzard’s behavior.  If your goal is to destroy Blizzard, a US company largely staffed in the US by US workers, I’m not on your side. (Some people shouting the loudest were already angry at Blizzard well before this, so I am suspicious of some motivations.)  And if you’re harassing Blizzard employees, well fuck you.

One of the protest efforts has been the attempt to adopt the character Mei from Overwatch as a symbol of the Hong Kong protests, no doubt with an eye to getting the gamed banned in China the way Winnie the Pooh was.  But this might have the odd side effect of making Blizzard more likely to do what China says.  It is all the easier for the government of China to ban Overwatch if it does become a symbol, so Blizzard may be all that much more motivated to stay in its good graces.  Nothing is ever simple.

And all of effort against Blizzard does nothing for Hong Kong, which I fear is without much hope.  When push comes to shove, China will roll the tanks, as they have done in the past, before they will relinquish any control.  The government of China likes having Hong Kong, rich and successful and semi-free, as a part of their country.  It makes them look good.  But their tolerance of protests so far is, to my mind, largely a lure to get Taiwan back.  But if Hong Kong gets too far out of control, China will use force.  They play a long game, and if keeping control of what they have pushes out getting Taiwan back by another 50 years, they’ll still make that choice.

But maybe public push back on companies like Blizzard or the NBA will cost enough to make other companies put a little more emphasis on what their current customers here are worth when they considering prostituting their values… like those values out in front of Blizzard’s headquarters, covered up by employees embarrassed at the company’s behavior… to curry favor with a dystopian dictatorship that is so thin skinned that it cannot stand any criticism.

I am a cynic, yet somehow I always find room for hope.  We shall see.

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14 thoughts on “China Reckoning

  1. Shintar

    Thanks for the added context about recent tensions in the US-China relationship; that was really illuminating. As a non-American, it’s felt a bit weird to me how emotional many people have got about this. Too busy watching my own country of residence descend into chaos to have strong opinions on how US companies should do business with China I guess…

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  2. Marathal

    Personal feeling is Blizzard is going to remain silent on the matter. Nothing they say or do will alter anything. A few thousand players lost is nothing in comparison to being asked to leave the China market. NetEase has a stack for Blizzard to operate in the country. If they pulled out completely the ripple effect would be a tidal wave across the entire gaming world. eSports would probably disappear overnight as any team with Chinese nationals would lose their players when the government makes it illegal for them to participate. Thousands would lose their jobs, certainly any Blizzard titles that rely on China to remain profitable might see the axe. The company? It would survive. Sure they would take a hit financially, but they would recover. Mostly for cutting out entire divisions of employees. You could even take the opinion that one young mans statement could cost thousands their jobs, and cause billions of dollars in damages.

    So yeah, his actions could have had a catastrophic effect on the company.

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  3. bhagpuss

    I was surprised to read at Massively OP today that China only represents around 5% of Blizzard’s income. The whole of the “Asia-Pacific” region is just 12%, including China’s five.

    The way this has reported you’d think Blizzard was at grave risk of going under if it didn’t do exactly what China wanted. With 95% of it’s business happening in the parts of the world (I.E. all of it except mainland China) where refusing to bend to the will of the Chinese Communist would, presumably, be seen as good P.R. the action they took seems even more incomprehensible.

    Side-stepping the much more serious and conmplex underlying issues, the question that most vexes me is what Blizzard thought they were doing by going in so hard against Blitzchung in the first place, not to mention the hapless presenters. The light wrist-slapping they subsequently gave the US team justs compunds the problem. That the action against the original protest was draconian is just highlighted by the light touch applied to a similar protest in the home market.

    Added to that, the ongoing silence is just making things seem even more sinister. It’s getting hard to see what Blizzard could do at this stage to roll things back, other than to decide to remove themselves from the Chinese market altogether. That seems unlikely, to say the least.

    Gamesindustry.biz ran a very telling op-ed piece today, arguing that this is just the creak of a door that’s about to open wide and let the light in on any number of equally disturbing industry practices vis a vis China and The West. Unless, as you speculate, China itself makes a decision to operate differently in respect of PR choices in the future, it’s getting increasingly hard to see how Western companies, particularly Games companies, are going to extricate themeselves from the relationship they’ve been building for many years.

    Whether Western outrage will burn itself out before that becomes a genuine crisis remains to be seen. Whatever compromise may happen in the longer term, it isn’t going to come in time to prevent Blizzcon being a focus for everything Blizzard would most want to avoid.

    Has anyone suggested a mass boycott of Blizzcon yet?

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Marathal

    Blizzcon boycott? Doubt it would happen. Now you’re talking about money people going would personally lose. Oh I am certain some will try to stage protests, or hold up signs, even chant. But that behavior is going to get shot down quickly.

    With what little I can infer from reading, it would seem to me that there may have been government monitoring of what happened, maybe even a rep there overseeing. Nothing gets said without prior approvals. Certainly they may have said something immediately, but it was several hours investigation before the ban was handed down. They may have even spoken to him to determine if it was just a spur of the moment thing or not. That he has said he planned it, and knew the penalties, means he has no remorse and would do it again given the opportunity.

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  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Marathal – I can think of nothing so counter-productive as suing at this point. That would be beyond idiotic. Leaving aside the ongoing bad press, the legal fees to do so would probably amount to more than the net worth of his family. There is no upside at all to that idea.

    @Bhagpuss – Back in 1989, after the crack down on the democracy movement in Tienanmen Square, I would have said that we would never have anything but tense and frosty relations with China. But the west has a short memory and money has no concern for history. I was emotionally invested in all of that at the time, and remain dubious about anything involving the Chinese government. They have zero good will towards us and we kid ourselves if we think otherwise. If the USSR was Czarism with a red paint job and some slogans, then the PRC is just the return of Imperial China and it seeks to be the center of all things once more.

    But I get called a crank when I say that. And I might very well be.

    As for the amount of revenue companies get from China, that is the comical part of all of this. They are drawn in by the lure of a unified market of one billion people. But the government holds the reins and stacks the deck. You have to partner with a Chinese company in a joint venture, and the local company must be the majority owner. They get 50% of earnings straight off the top, no joke. Meanwhile, repatriating the remaining earnings is difficult. The RMB isn’t convertible in large amounts because the government of China wants you to re-invest it there rather than take it home.

    So when people talk about how a movie like Warcraft made so much money in China it is all BS. Half of it gets taken straight away and the other half you cannot bring home. It is all paper value. Every once in a while the government will let you repatriate some, with a promise of more later if you behave, but that is just to keep companies on the hook. And once you’ve invested, you’re stuck unless you want to take a loss on the books. Better to just stick it out.

    But the allure of a billion people remains. It is an illusion, a promise that the government of China likes to encourage to get you to invest.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Marathal

    Oh certainly it would. But companies have done stupid things in the past. What I’m starting to believe is that they may have been looking ahead. If they gave him a 1 game suspension and loss of that days winnings, what do they do when the next player steps up and makes a statement, and the next. Maybe it was a decision to make him an example. We won’t really know until we find out more.

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  7. Esteban

    It’s going to be an ugly Blizzcon, and I think Blizzard might just price that in, let people believe that they’ve got their boot in meaningfully, let the emotional discharge settle tempers, and ride it out.

    It might not take all that long. As someone whose politics tend to the left, and who has tilted at his share of windmills, I have a healthy reservoir of skepticism for people’s willingness to organise and sustain consumer boycotts over something that does not immediately threaten their interests. It does happen, but it takes a lot of deliberate, hard campaigning work to keep going. It is unlikely to happen over something like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dinsdale Pirannha

    Bottom line, a person has to choose. Are they on the side of fascism and authoritarianism, or the side of human rights and democracy. And yes, it IS black and white. There is no grey area. You are correct that the exec’s at Blizzard are not financially impacted. They are psychopaths. All large corporations mirror psychopathic behaviour, and their leaders are cut of that cloth. The only thing that a psychopath worries about is their personal safety.

    So, it is time to start exercising the only option that fascists and those that side with them understand. We have reached that point in time in human history, again. It is not the first, and it won’t be the last.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. evehermit

    China has found money trumps western morals. They have been buying influence around the world for years, and are now blatantly using it. I wonder if they have been forced to in response to a combative and erratic Donald Trump, or if they feel they have moved past some tipping point where the benefits of openly pushing their agenda outweigh any backlash. The Australian politicians don’t seem to know what to do, setting it seems on seesawing ineptness. Given the world wide economic issues, and pushes towards nationalism and military build up, it would be interesting to see a scientific study about how well historians are sleeping.

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  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Corr – Yeah, I happened to be on Twitter when it hit. They actually tweeted the URL before their server had it ready, so for a couple minutes it went to their 404 page. As for the content, I’ll get to that tomorrow Monday. I don’t have it in me to get to it on a Saturday morning.

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  11. Redbeard

    I’m less interested in Blizz itself –although BlizzCon will likely be a truly chaotic event– but eSports in general. Riot owns League, Epic owns Fortnite, and both have big stakes in their companies by the CCP front corporation called Tencent. Just how will the major teams –particularly those in South Korea and Japan, who aren’t big fans of Imperial China anyway– react when the tanks roll in Hong Kong* it a big unknown. The entire eSports industry could suffer a lot by the Chinese ownership of these games.

    *Or worse, if China decides to really make an example of Hong Kong and any other Cantonese city on the edge of unrest.

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  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Redbeard – Riot has said that they will not allow competitors to make personal political statements as part of their tournaments.

    Tim Sweeney of Epic said he totally supports free speech and would not censor anybody, but Fornite also wasn’t available in China the last time I checked, so that is largely a theoretical stance at this point.

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