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One of America’s biggest gaming companies is acting as China’s censor

Activision Blizzard punished a pro player for speaking out on behalf of Hong Kong. This should be unacceptable.

Blitzchung, the Hong Kong based player at the center of the Blizzard controversy.
Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Activision Blizzard, one of America’s biggest gaming companies, just bowed to Chinese censorship in a disturbing way: suspending a professional player of Hearthstone, its digital card game, over a statement supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

The offending commentary from Chung Ng Wai, a Hong Kong-based player who goes by the name “Blitzchung,” came during an official interview on Sunday held after he won a match in the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, the highest level of competition in the game.

Chung said “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” — a protest slogan in the city — while wearing goggles and a face mask, items commonly donned by protestors to conceal their identity. The protests, which began over an extradition law, have morphed into a broad-based demand to protect the semi-autonomous city’s democratic political system from mainland China’s attempts to exert control over it.

On Tuesday, Blizzard came down hard on Chung. In an official statement on Hearthstone’s blog, the company announced that it would be suspending Chung for a year, forcing him to forfeit thousands of dollars in prize money from 2019 and firing the casters (commentators) who conducted the interview.

This is a big deal.

Blizzard, who created (among other things) World of Warcraft, is a massive company. It brought in about $7.5 billion in revenue in 2018. Like the NBA, which has rebuked the Houston Rockets’ general manager over a pro-Hong Kong tweet, Blizzard is not merely trying to operate within the confines of Chinese censorship but acting as its agent.

The non-Chinese Hearthstone player base is furious with Blizzard; the game’s subreddit is full of longtime players vowing to quit the game in protest. Count me as one of them.

I’ve been playing Hearthstone daily for about two years, including spending some money on cards and reaching the top tier of the game’s competitive ladder (the Legend ranks). But now I’m done, both with Hearthstone and any other Activision Blizzard product, unless it reinstates Chung and the casters.

The case for boycotting Blizzard — and other US companies who act as Chinese censors

Blizzard’s argument for suspending Chung hinges on an alleged rule violation, specifically Section 6.1 of the official Hearthstone Grandmasters rules. The rule prohibits “engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.”

The idea here seems to be that supporting pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong has brought Chung into “public disrepute” in mainland China, justifying his suspension. The actual motivation is most likely crasser: Blizzard’s userbase is declining, and it is counting on expansion in the very large Chinese market to reverse the downward momentum.

“The gaming giant ... is badly in need of a stimulus after its market value declined by a quarter over the past twelve months,” the financial news company AlphaStreet reported in January. “Blizzard’s strategy of taking the China route for regaining the lost strength is currently followed by many American tech companies.”

Blizzard’s userbase remains overwhelmingly non-Chinese. According to the company’s most recent financial data, from June 2019, the entire Asia-Pacific region makes up a scant 12 percent of its revenue. Since that region includes large gaming markets in places like Japan and South Korea, mainland China’s clout is smaller than you think — and pales in comparison to the Americas (55 percent) and Europe/the Middle East (33 percent).

So while Blizzard may have a lot of ground to gain in the Chinese market, a significant hit to its revenue in the United States and other liberal democracies would be a massive threat. Blizzard’s fans in those countries have a lot of leverage over the company.

And, in this case, they’re justified in using it.

Navigating the Chinese market is difficult for major companies and requires some necessary tradeoffs. Blizzard has changed the art in World of Warcraft to comply with Chinese cultural norms and strictures, notably cutting out some goriness and skeletons. That’s maybe not ideal, but at least a defensible choice for a company that has a clear financial stake in the Chinese market.

Censoring a professional player for expressing support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong — and seizing his money — is way over the line.

It isn’t merely adjusting a cosmetic part of the product to fit a particular market; it’s actively participating in the suppression of political speech on behalf of core liberal values. Blizzard is throwing its lot in with an authoritarian state, acting as an international agent of its repressive apparatus in opposition to fundamental human rights.

An organized boycott targeting Blizzard is also a relatively rare opportunity for ordinary citizens around the world to help out the Hong Kong protestors working to protect their democratic system.

It’s hard to do much for the brave people taking to the streets from thousands of miles away, but international consumers do have leverage over international corporations. Punishing Blizzard for its behavior could help send a signal to other companies that acting as agents of the Chinese state carries a cost and that they need to think carefully before throwing Hong Kong under the bus.

Blizzard’s censorship of Chung is hardly the only case of a US company acting on behalf of China. Just yesterday, the NBA issued a statement distancing itself from Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, after he tweeted support for the Hong Kong protestors. The team is reportedly considering firing him in order to placate Chinese authorities and protect NBA investments there.

The league is facing a bipartisan political backlash as a result; Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several Democratic presidential candidates have condemned the league’s actions.

But Blizzard, less well known among the American political class, isn’t facing the same amount of high-level political condemnation. For now, it seems it’s up to Blizzard’s users to show the company that its actions have consequences.