Tag Archives: China

The Apology

The cynical side of me was betting that Blizz would just ignore this and hope it went away.  And, given that there were 40,000+ hardcore cheering fans inside the convention center and about 40 protesters outside as the opening ceremony began, they probably could have pulled it off in the short term.

Instead, the first thing that happened was J. Allen Brack got up and read his apology for what happened.  You can read the text here.

Reading from the teleprompter

As one would expect, the reactions to this were many and varied.  Ars Technica called the apology vague.   Massively OP put the word “apology” in quotes, so I guess they were not buying it.  But they have taken a hard editorial line against Blizzard.  I don’t recall them putting in little editorial apologies for covering other badly behaving companies like Riot.

Others seemed to take the apology as enough.  SynCaine declared victory for the protest.  They certainly got a response.

My own reaction remains somewhat mixed.  The apology was actually fairly vague, though this was a speech at a fan even and not a courtroom elocution, so it was probably too much to expect a rehash of every detail.  Brack said he was sorry for what happened and didn’t shift blame or claim extenuating circumstances.  He didn’t say that the Chinese or Bobby Kotick or whoever made him do it or go the NBA route and try to cast himself as a hero by going on about on how he talked the Chinese down from an even harsher penalty.  He didn’t mention China or Hong Kong at all.  The only thing he did seem clear on was that Blizzard did not live up to the standards to which it claims to aspire.

But what are those standards?

You have to parse things carefully to figure out what he was sorry for, and even then it is pretty opaque.  He said Blizz was too fast to pass judgement then too slow to respond to the outcry that judgement caused.  I think the latter at least is correct.  Going more than a day made things worse certainly.

As for not living up to the purpose of the company, there was some hand waving about bringing people together across the world through video games.  The promise was to do better on that as well, though I am not sure what better or worse really looks like.

He did not announce any specific changes either, nor hold up a “Free Hong Kong” sign, nor put the flag of Hong Kong or the guy walking around dressed up as Winnie the Pooh up on the big screen behind the stage.  Going openly and loudly against China was all that would appease some people, and that was never going to happen.  Blizz was never going to jump into the political ring.

And he didn’t let Blitzchung, or the two teams that were banned for showing support for Hong Kong, off the hook.  Their suspensions stand, and I am okay with that.  There were rules about that, Blitzchung knew them, knew he would likely face sanction, and chose to disobey them for a higher cause.

Blizz, in my opinion, still has to penalize him for what he did, because he did do something wrong and he knew it.  Blizz rescinding the ban would just send the message that it is okay to bring your politics into the tournament.

Most people seem worked up about the ban because they support Blitzchung’s message.  I am sure those people would be fine suspending somebody who said something that didn’t align with their world view, which is the typical free speech hypocrisy we see every day.  Blizz isn’t the government.  They don’t have to allow free speech in their tournament.  So as long as Blizz applies bans in such circumstances independent of the message, I think they’re acting correctly.

It would be different if Blizz were to go after somebody for political statements they made on their own time or tried to lecture people about the situation in Hong Kong.  That would be a whole different kettle of fish.  But participating in their tournaments on their dime you have to play by their rules.

Given that, I am not really sure what the promise to do better really means.  I guess it will mean being consistent with a six month ban for similar violations, applied regardless of message, that taking away prize money earned is wrong, and that penalties should be more slowly deliberated on and more quickly communicated. Maybe?  As anybody who has watched (and understood) the show BoJack Horseman knows, apologizing or feeling bad about what you’ve done doesn’t matter if you don’t change your behavior.  So is that the behavior change?  If not, what is?

For the most part I liked that Brack got up first thing and spoke about this issue, rather than ignoring it or downplaying it or waiting until after 5pm on a Friday to post it to their site.  And the apology had some good aspects, as I mentioned.   But the promise to do better didn’t leave me all that reassured as I am still not clear as to how that translates into action going forward.

So it is complicated.  I am no fan of China.  I haven’t forgiven then for Tienanmen Square.  They are a totalitarian, repressive regime and are engaged in ethnic cleansing as I noted previously.  Letting them into the WTO was a mistake to my mind, given how they abuse it.  The idea has always been that a free market will infect China and force it to liberalize. (Though the real plan has always been simply to make money, because we’re like that.)

The problem is that China doesn’t have a free market.  Every company in China operates only at the sufferance of the government and must be expected to act as agents of the government on deemand.  Any foreign company that does business in China has to partner up with one of those government approved entities, give it control in a joint venture, and be ready appease the Chinese government on demand.  So I would have rather Blizz avoided that altogether.  But that ship sailed years ago and they are hardly alone in doing business in China and to sanction them while giving Apple, Google, GM, the NBA, or whoever a pass doesn’t work for me.  And should you even punish a US company when many of its main competitors are owned in part or in whole by companies like Tencent and NetEase? Doesn’t that essentially help China more?

This is me thinking too much about the whole thing.

If after the apology you’re still on the #BoycottBlizzard bandwagon, I get it.  I don’t think you’ll get what you want, and you really aren’t doing anything to hurt China, or even support Hong Kong, but if Blizzard disappointed you then withholding your support is reasonable.

As for my own reaction, I didn’t rush off to renew my WoW subscription or pre-order Shadowlands.  My financial support remains withheld for now.  But it seems much more likely that I will do both when I feel the time is ripe.  I still have a good amount of time left before I need to do either.   This incident won’t stand in my way, but I will remain sensitive to how Blizz may behave in similar circumstances going forward.  And I wonder who will push the boundaries next and how Blizz will respond.  They could still mess this up.

On this topic:

Blizzard Speaks

Friday at approximately 5:20pm Pacific time Blizzard start pointing towards a statement “Regarding Last Weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament” on their various social media accounts.  I saw it just as it popped up on Twitter where it appears just ahead of when the press release site was ready to serve it up, leading to about a minute of people getting the amusing Murloc 404 error for Blizzard’s site.

Just looking at the timing of the press release made me a bit skeptical.  There is a long tradition in US business and politics of making announcements you think will damaging or not be received well after business hours on a Friday.  The hope is that the story will get lost in the mix before Monday comes around.  I’ve poked Daybreak about doing this in the past.  But the internet news cycle knows no weekends and Blizzard has a much larger profile than Daybreak, so the timing of the release probably doesn’t have much of a message in it unless Blizzard expects everything to die down.  It won’t.

Going to the statement, the changes that were announced:

  • Blitzchung’s winnings will not be “rescinded,” so he gets to keep any prize money he won
  • Blitzchung’s suspension has been reduced from a year to six months.  He will be able to compete in the 2020 Grandmasters tournament if he so desires
  • The two casters of the show are suspended from working on Blizzard tournament for six months, reduced from “forever” I guess, for failing to keep the show on topic

The first covers what I felt was the most egregiously unfair aspect of the affair.  So good on Blizz for that.

The second… well… I’m not happy, but it is better.

And the third, if you’re running a broadcast for Blizzard you’d best be running on a delay and be ready to cut out the feed if things get out of hand I guess.  But at that point you’re a Blizz contractor, so you serve at their pleasure.

Blizzard also strongly reiterated its stance that when you play in their league you agree to their rules.  If you express views within the context of the tournament, they had better remain focused on the game.  Some people have tried to make hash out of the fact that Blizzard, as a company, can express political views, and has done so about “controversial” things like being against discrimination in the work place, but that doesn’t mean that Blizz has to provide a forum for political speech for anybody under its own banner.  Blizzard can speak for Blizzard.  But when you speak under the Blizzard banner at a Blizzard event, you too are speaking for Blizzard and they get to make the rules.

When it comes down to it, we liked Blitzchung’s message, so we feel he shouldn’t be punished. But it doesn’t take much mental rigor to imagine other messages we would not agree with.  You think if somebody got up and echoed Ward Churchill we would be having this issue?  We love free speech when we agree with the speaker, but lose our minds when we do not.

That Blizzard did not similarly ban a US team for holding up sign supporting Hong Kong late last week remains problematic.  You are sending a message if rules are not enforced uniformly.

And Blizzard failed completely to address the statements made in China by their partner NetEase on the Weibo platform about respecting and defending the pride of China.  Therein lays the rub for many.  As I noted elsewhere, to business in China you must partner with a Chinese company in a joint venture.  For Blizzard their partner is NetEase.  That partner must have a controlling stake in the venture.  To do business in China you have to hand over the rights to your product and messaging there.  So Blizz may not have any control over what NetEase says in their name and certainly no control over what NetEase says under its own banner.

But, as I wrote on Friday, I am not sure that matters.  When you make the deal you get what comes of it, good and bad.  So while Blizzard says Blitzchung’s ban was not specifically due to his message and that Blizzard’s relationship with the government of China had nothing to do with the ban, the words of their partner do not line up with that.  I do not think it is excessive to insist that Blizzard reconcile what they are saying to their Western audience with what is being said in their name in China.

Given all of this, am I happy?  No.  But I wrote on Friday that I doubted Blizzard could to anything that would make anybody happy, much less everybody.

And if you were already angry at Blizzard for whatever reason before this occurred, it is very easy to mine their statement for more flaws.  You can see perennial axe grinder and self-promoter Mark Kern out there on Twitter trying to make himself the head of the anti-Blizzard faction.  That he goes to such ridiculous lengths to find fault (How dare Blizzard describe what a shout caster is!) makes him look like a buffoon yet again, diluting his message with the trivial.  But I expect no less from him.  Mark Kern is just going to be Mark Kern.

Anyway, Blitzhchung getting his prize money makes me feel better, as does the reduction in his suspension, which will allow him to compete in next year’s tournament.  We will see if he has the liberty in Hong Kong to do so a year down the road.  Chinese President for Life Xi Jinping was ratcheting up the rhetoric this past weekend in what sounded very much like a warning that repression was coming.  We’ll see who wants to do business in China if that comes to pass.

I am not happy with Blizzard’s failure to own up to the dichotomy of its China situation.  I don’t expect them to divest fully from China right now, as I have seen some demand.  China is alleged to be only 5% of Blizz’s revenue, but you may have noticed that Acti-Blizz has been selling Monthly Active Users as its success metric since they decided never to speak of subscription numbers again, and China is a very large source for that metric when it comes to games like Hearthstone.

But some clarification of the situation and some ownership of what it means might be helpful… or it might not.  I’m not sure most people get the reality of doing business in China.  Seeing just how compromised Blizz is may not help.

So, after their statement, have I run back and re-subscribed?  No.

Blizzard hasn’t done anything to earn my adoration with this, but I still have some time to think about it.  Certainly what comes to pass at BlizzCon will influence my thoughts, and that is less than three weeks away.  Some people already have plans it seems.

Oct. 16, 2019 addendum: It looks like the US team that held up the sign got a six month ban eventually, as well as an Australian team that call for a boycott of Blizzard.  So I guess we can leave “lack of consistency” off the list of complaints.  Yay?

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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