International video game giant Activision-Blizzard has been caught in a veritable storm of bad press after a decision was made this week to suspend a professional player and tournament winner of its digital card game Hearthstone.
Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, a Hong Kong native, had participated in an interview with two Taiwanese hosts after a tournament match during which he donned a mask and said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Blizzard laid the hammer on Blitzchung, who was banned for a year and forced to hand over his tournament earnings. Even more shockingly, the video game giant also fired both reporters who conducted the interview, despite their lack of participation in anything having to do with protesting China’s treatment of Hong Kong.
Of course, this sparked immediate outrage from the gaming community. Reddit, a locus of the Blizzard fandom, second perhaps only to the official forums, had multiple threads on the subject reach the front page, with hundreds of thousands of people disavowing Blizzard’s behavior. Even now, it remains awash in anti-Chinese and Blizzard-related memes.
Longtime fans of the company’s games boycotted in anger, vowing to never play Activison-Blizzard games ever again and deleting their accounts. Longtime Hearthstone professional player and caster Brian Kibler quit an upcoming convention called BlizzCon. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) publicly shamed the company on Twitter. And a Norwegian parliament member, Grunde Almeland, sent the company a letter warning it may not be welcome to host tournaments in the country unless it reverses its decision to blitz Blitzchung.
It’s good to see that this despicable display united both sides of the political aisle. The cowardly assault on free speech in Hong Kong by the communist Chinese government has finally brought bipartisanship back to the Swamp.
Blizzard “justified” its ruling in an announcement on October 8, 2019. But the company’s strange behavior at this point escalated. Shortly afterwards, its Reddit page became invitation-only. Players reported being banned for more than 1,000 years on Blizzard forums. A coach for another Blizzard game, Overwatch, was told to delete a tweet criticizing the treatment of Blitzchung. A company that offered to reimburse Blitzchung’s winnings and offered him a spot in its own game, Gods Unchained, came under undisclosed cyberattacks.
The most egregious aspect of the whole sordid episode is that Blizzard caved and offered an apology — to the Chinese. On the Chinese social network website Weibo — which is heavily censored by its oppressive government — Blizzard’s Chinese Hearthstone account released a statement apologizing for the behavior of Blitzchung and stating that “we will always respect and defend the pride of our country.”
Such behavior only goes to show how far companies are falling over themselves to appease President Xi Jingping and his communist censorial cronies. It should come as no surprise that Chinese gaming giant Tencent owns about 5 percent of Activision-Blizzard stock. Caving to the demands of the Chinese is part of its modus operandi. Blizzard refers to its tournaments and broadcasts in Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei,” after all, words coming straight from the playbook of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It certainly feels as though Blizzard is bowing to censors of an oppressive regime, if not outright imitating its practices, all to refrain from upsetting the communist apple cart.
Perhaps you aren’t an avid video game player, and this whole situation seems irrelevant to you. But countless U.S. companies are doing the same thing to maintain access to the Chinese market. How about tech giant Google, which you no doubt use in some form of your daily life? It worked with China to enact censored internet search engines. Apple, another U.S. tech giant, removed a protester-friendly app in an attempt to shut down gatherings not approved by the Chinese government. And how about the National Basketball Association, which offered a tepid apology after executives, including Commissioner (or Comrade?) Adam Silver, got on their knees to grovel to the Chinese.
Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on your perspective) for companies “lowering their ideals of freedom to suck on the warm teat of China,” as South Park so elegantly put it in a recent episode called “Band in China” (which, fittingly, got the show banned and scrubbed from the Chinese internet), people are noticing. American companies are no longer able to get away with supporting the oppressive regime that is waiting for the moment to crush the freedom movement bubbling in Hong Kong.
Corporations can no longer stand idly by, pretending to be independent actors, unaware of the mass human rights violations perpetuated by the PRC, just to make a quick buck. Public anger, boycotts, and mockery are all being employed to rattle these cowardly companies. Good news: this pushback appears to be working. We should never compromise our American ideals for the sake of a dictatorial government directly opposed to everything the United States stands for.
Billy Aouste (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a media specialist with The Heartland Institute.