Earlier this week, Blizzard Entertainment suspended a Hearthstone player for comments the individual made in support of pro-democracy protests that have been roiling Hong Kong for months. It also suspended the two streamers hosting the interview. The streamer in question, Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, has forfeited all of his prize money for the season and is banned from competition for a year.
On October 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey caused an uproar by tweeting in support of Hong Kong, writing “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” In response, as of this writing, 11 of the 13 companies that partner with the NBA have pulled their sponsorships. The NBA forced Morey to pull his tweet and issued statements apologizing for what occurred.
In English, the first part of the NBA statement reads: “We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” According to CNBC, the NBA’s message in Mandarin reads: “We are extremely disappointed by the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of our Chinese fans.” According to reports, ESPN — owned by Disney, which owns Marvel — has prohibited on-air discussion of any politics related to Hong Kong. This leads to the absurdity of people discussing a tweet without discussing any of the reasons why an individual might send it in the first place.
This is, to be sure, far from the first time that corporations have been willing to kowtow to China’s fragile emotional state for the purposes of making money off its citizens. Last year, news broke that Google was attempting to slither back into China with a new search engine, even as China ramped up its social credit monitoring system and began assessing penalties for “antisocial” behavior. Google fought to protect its Chinese users from this intrusion by… building a search engine that tied your search queries to your telephone number.
If you buy an Apple iPhone in China running iOS 13.1, it won’t have a Taiwanese flag in the emoji keyboard, because China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, doesn’t allow footage from the Hong Kong protests to appear on the Chinese platform. The idea that corporations would put profit in front of people is, of course, nothing new or unique. Multiple US companies directly assist Chinese firms in censoring their own citizens.
What is new is the way these decisions are beginning to impact American products and American audiences. In 2016, Marvel cast Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One in the then-upcoming movie, Doctor Strange. In the comics, the Ancient One is from Tibet. In the MCU, however, she’s Celtic. And according to Doctor Strange’s co-screenwriter, Robert Cargill, that change was made for one reason: to avoid pissing off China.
“He [the character] originates from Tibet,” Cargill has said. “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit, and risk the Chinese government going ‘Hey, we’re one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world, and we’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”
Success in this arena has only emboldened China. Two days ago, South Park aired an episode critical of how Hollywood has repeatedly kowtowed to Chinese demands for censorship. In response, China censors have pulled the entire show offline. The country has waged war against depictions of itself in media, including any and all references to President Xi Jinping’s supposed resemblance to Winnie the Pooh.
Earlier this year, the Taiwanese horror game Devotion by Red Candle Games vanished from the internet because a third-party company hired to work on the project inserted a Winnie-the-Pooh meme. The game is not expected to ever return to shelves. While the developer was Taiwanese, the company that signed up to distribute the game in China, Indievent, has had its business license revoked. Indievent cut ties with Red Candle as soon as the meme was discovered. China’s censors didn’t care.
Up until now, most of this censorship has flown under the radar. Casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One could be dismissed as just another example of Hollywood executives whitewashing the cast. Few Americans care much about whether China sees exactly the same version of Iron Man 3 as the rest of us, or if scenes are strategically edited out of movies to spare Chinese sensibilities. But these recent actions by Blizzard and the NBA show it’s reached a new level. Streamers have international audiences in Blizzard’s case. Daryl Morey is an American in an organization that has prided itself on allowing players to speak their minds, in explicit contrast to the NFL.
This Isn’t What Was Supposed to Happen
If you think back roughly 20 years, there was a very different argument being made for why China should be allowed to join the WTO and become part of the international trade community. In its broad form, it tied together trends in Chinese economic development from the 1970s to the 1990s with the historical emergence of the French bourgeoisie and the beginning of the middle class in 18th-century Europe. As the historical middle class of Western Europe grew and acquired economic power, its members began to demand greater political accountability from their rulers and to insist on more power for themselves. Over time, Western nations took various steps to reduce inequality, including abolishing requirements that only landowners could vote, ending slavery, extending voting rights to former slaves and women, and passing various laws that protected children, workers, and citizens more generally. In this telling, democracy and capitalism are inexorably intertwined, and the rise of an educated, highly skilled middle class (relative to previous generations of agricultural workers) is directly linked to the expansion of voting and increased access to the democratic process. It’s a philosophy known as “democratic capitalism,” and no less an individual than Thomas Jefferson was a proponent.
The idea — or rather, the article of faith between both liberal and conservative camps in the late 1990s — was that exposing China to American culture would inexorably result in the liberalization of that country’s social policies and the adoption of democratic principles. As they gained economic power, Chinese citizens were supposed to demand increased representation and accountability from their government. Attempts by authoritarian governments to create Great Firewalls were dismissed as laughable. “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” was a common saying of the day.
We may extend some sympathy to the pundits of the late 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its various puppet states in Eastern Europe created a great deal of optimism regarding the long-term fate of totalitarian regimes worldwide. Francis Fukuyama was still being invited to parties for declaring that we had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The idea of capitalism and democracy as not just mutually agreeable bedfellows or occasional common travelers but as fundamental aspects of one another has deep roots in American political thought.
But deeply rooted or not, we must contend with a hard truth. China has not opened its borders to American goods in the unrestricted way many industrialists dreamed of 20 years ago, and it has not adopted American attitudes on a host of topics, including the importance of safeguarding individual freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial. The internet, once seen as the great democratizing and liberating force that would sandblast the censorious practices of governments back into the Stone Age, is now an agent of their continued repression. In his 1996 seminal essay “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow wrote: “In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.”
John Perry Barlow was wrong. Those guard posts have been reinforced, fortified, and combined with official media strategies designed to confuse and mislead the public. Russia is building its own version of the internet. China’s Great Firewall maintains its watch. Many mainland Chinese are not aware of what Hong Kong residents are fighting for — namely the right not to be extradited without trial to a mainland nation with a horrific human rights record — because they have not been exposed to the information. The Chinese government has long restricted what its own people could see within its borders. Now, it’s flexing its muscle and testing the waters to see how far its reach extends.
Will America Allow Its Values to Be Dictated by China?
Neither democratic capitalism nor technological capability has brought democracy or respect for freedom of speech to China. The Chinese government may have become more tolerant of dissent in certain specific ways, but it has no intention of allowing anything resembling a free and fair exchange of ideas. This may be a good time to mention that the United States government estimates between 1-3 million ethnic Muslims (many of Uyghur descent) are currently imprisoned in “re-education” camps across China without trial or even accusation of a crime. Criticism of this policy is also strictly verboten. The entire reason Hong Kong is up in arms about allowing its citizens to be extradited to China is that under Xi Jinping, activists, protestors, and people the government just doesn’t like have been known to disappear from their homes. Sometimes they reappear in government detention. Sometimes they don’t. Non-Chinese natives have also been taken, including former Canadian diplomat Michael Korvig.
None of this is to pretend that America stands on some kind of pedestal. We are not perfect. There are many accurate and fair criticisms of America and its criminal justice system. To those who would raise such points, I would say this: Discussion, very much including a discussion of flaws and failures, is a precursor to any attempt to fix a problem. Without the ability to discuss something, there is no way to raise awareness, no way to bring people together, and no way to solve it. Limiting that discussion is the entire point of censorship.
China is not simply trying to control the conversation within its borders. Twitter is officially banned in China. This is an attempt to control the dialog, period. Many people have been angry at both Blizzard and the NBA over how these situations are playing out, but directing anger at Blizzard or even the NBA is a necessary but insufficient goal if the desired outcome is meaningful change.
We have arrived at this point because a lot of very smart people believed a very convenient argument about how democracy and capitalism were intertwined in order to feel good about themselves while opening new markets and making huge amounts of money. Above all else, it was convenient to believe that China would democratize its social policies as it took certain steps towards opening its markets. This is not a recent affliction. In his paper, “The Emergence of Capitalism in China: An Historical Perspective and Its Impact on the Political System,” written in 2006, Jean-Francois Huchet referred to a specific question “that has been repeated like a mantra in foreign government circles and by reformers in China: Will the economic transformations that have taken place in the People’s Republic soon lead to the emergence of a democratic regime that will enable China to complete its cycle of modernization?”
Writing 13 years ago, his assessment was decidedly negative. “In the case of China, we can find very few factors in the current economic situation likely to lead to a democratic evolution.”
Nonetheless, this is the situation we now find ourselves in. Will it force a reckoning? Not immediately. But it’s not going to stop, either. China is fully aware of how many Western companies want to sell products to its citizens. It is increasingly willing to flex its muscle to dictate the terms and conditions under which they will be allowed to do so. Now China presumes it can dictate the private speech of an American citizen on the grounds that it can egregiously punish his employer. How the United States reacts to this, both officially and unofficially, will determine whether China believes it can continue to take these actions.
If we ignore the threat — or worse, if we pretend that these actions exist solely in the realm of economics and therefore have no bearing on diplomacy or prevailing national interests — we will regret it. Those who claim to believe in the marketplace of ideas should consider the impact of quitting the field and ceding the debate to an opponent. If we do not act to safeguard what we claim to believe in, we run the risk of losing it. The modern internet no longer resembles the untrammeled fields of Barlow’s original vision, and there is precious little room for disagreement when large corporations believe their continued economic health is predicated on restricting your freedom of speech.
This is a fundamental clash of values between two world powers. The United States, for all its flaws and failings, has generally promoted robust freedom of speech and demonstrated a willingness to allow unpopular opinions to be debated in the public square, even when those debates are embarrassing to its leadership or harmful to their reputations. For nearly 30 years, we have declared ourselves to be the sole superpower astride the world stage and treated our own values as manifestly self-evident goods. China now feels itself to be in a position to dictate which topics will be discussed, and in what manner, and by whom. It covets the authority to do so and understands one way to seize that authority is to dictate terms to corporations who wish to sell products to its citizens. It will do so at every opportunity…
But only if we don’t stand up to it.
Feature image of 2014 Hong Kong protests at the beginning of the “Umbrella Movement.” Image by Studio Incendo, Flickr.
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