Last week, several events have shown a spotlight on Chinese censorship of the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Chinese censors have been taking increasingly draconian action to crack down on criticism of the country. When a Hong Kong-based Hearthstone streamer voiced support for the protesters who have battled for their right to a fair trial, Blizzard cracked down harshly. Chung ‘blitzchung’ Ng Wai was suspended from Hearthstone for a year and forced to forfeit his prize money. A similar punishment was applied to the two individuals who were interviewing him at the time.
The community response has been withering. Multiple casters and streamers have announced boycotts or stepped away from various positions and roles in the Hearthstone community. Now, Blizzard has released a lengthy statement on the matter, written by the company president, J. Allen Brack. It announces that the full-year ban against Blitzchung has been reduced to six months and that his prize money is no longer forfeit. It also claims: “our relationships in China had no influence on our decision… If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
This pair of excerpted statements are a master class, ironically enough, in self-censorship. Let’s talk about why.
How Chinese Censorship Works
When people think of censorship, they tend to think of a government or corporation suppressing information by refusing to allow it to be published. This is one type of censorship, to be sure, but it’s not very compatible with the existence of the modern internet. Simple anti-publishing mandates are fairly easy to route around on the internet, where an article that exists online even for an instant can be screen-shotted and disseminated.
A far more effective tactic is to teach people to self-censor by convincing them that speaking up is not in their own best interest. A related term, soft censorship, refers to the practice of using financial pressure on media companies to “persuade” them not to speak up on certain topics out of concern for having their access restricted or revoked.
As we detailed in our previous coverage, China has directly encouraged self-censorship by enforcing severe penalties against offenders. In 2018, Marriott published an online poll listing Tibet as a separate country rather than a part of China. A Tibetan separatist group published a link to the survey. A Marriott employee, Roy Jones, liked the post the separatist group made. He wasn’t Tibetan. He knew nothing about China-Tibetan relations. He was doing his job — promoting content created by people who appeared to be fans of Marriott.
Jones, who made $14 per hour, was fired within a week.
In February 2018, Mercedes-Benz took down an Instagram post because it quoted the Dalai Lama and enraged China in the process. The offending quote? “Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” I have no idea why anyone thought this statement would be useful when selling cars, but it’s objectively meaningless as far as any reference to the political situation between China and Tibet. Instagram is also banned in China, meaning few-to-no Chinese users would have even seen the ad.
China’s disproportionate responses are not mistakes. They’re the whole point.
If you want people to self-censor, fear, uncertainty, and doubt — FUD — are your absolute best friends. When China cracked down on popular online bloggers and opinion-makers in 2013, it claimed it did so to prevent fraud, abuse, and slander — but many of the accounts taken offline had a political edge to them. 9,800 social media accounts were banned in a single action. Afterward, the government introduced new laws governing online speech. At least one woman went to jail for three years for breaking them. This year, the Chinese silenced a social media star named Ma Ling, with more than 16 million followers. The NYT reports she posted about a young man with cancer “whose talent and virtue were not enough to overcome problems like corruption and inequality.”
The Chinese government obliterated her social media accounts and erased her online presence.
Egregious overreaction to seemingly minor events is how China maintains the necessary climate of fear. While it cannot directly jail the employees of Americans who mouth off on Twitter, it can certainly make retaining those employees incredibly expensive for companies wishing to do business in mainland China.
Let’s get back to Blizzard. China is a major market for the company. While Blizzard no longer releases player data for World of Warcraft, China currently accounts for 5.2 percent of Activision Blizzard’s revenue, almost double from its share one year ago. Activision Blizzard earned $7.2B in 2018. Assume equivalent revenue for 2019 (just to make the math simple), and that means China would be worth about $360M to the combined company.
You are Blizzard. A streamer from Hong Kong makes a statement you know will enrage the Chinese government. Do you instantly take action to remove the content, thereby preserving your harmonious relationship with the Chinese people, or do you wait for the censors to act, knowing how you will be treated if you do? Keep in mind, there is explicitly no guarantee whatsoever that you will not be punished. Others in your exact situation have been punished. But if you act instantly, there’s a chance you’ll be deemed to have been acting in good faith.
This is why I suspect J. Allen Brack could write that China had nothing to do with his company’s decision. It could very well be true. Blizzard didn’t make this decision after its lovable pal Xi Jinping stopped by with a pot of honey problem that needed solving. It made this decision “independently,” knowing that its entire Chinese business could be at stake if it did not. This, my friends, is what is often referred to as motivated reasoning.
As for the second part of the statement, I suspect it’s true as well. Would Blizzard have cracked down on a streamer with a big pro-China message? Very possibly — but importantly — not for the same reason. Blizzard likely cracked down on pro-Hong Kong statements to save its own ass. It would crack down on a pro-mainland China statement to preserve the illusion of neutrality. The only way for Blizzard to superficially appear to be neutral is to declare that it will crack down on both viewpoints. Neutrality, by its very nature, supports the status quo — in this case, the idea that no one is allowed to talk about Hong Kong unless it’s the government of mainland China. And mainland China has precious little interest in allowing news of what’s actually going on to reach its own citizens.
J. Allen Brack’s statement makes no mention of the fact that a Hearthstone team from American University attempted to get itself suspended by doing exactly what Blitzchung had done just days before. That team has not been penalized. In fact, it received a next match assignment after its action — a match it will forfeit in protest. Evidently China still recognizes that there are certain people it would be unprofitable to go after or Blizzard realizes that its efforts to curry favor with Xi Jinping’s administration have already been catastrophic for its brand. Possibly both.
Everyone practices self-censorship to a certain extent. I personally learned the value of the concept around age 10, when I called a church deacon a bastard for not taking my money during the offertory. My mother turned a shade so alarming, my father thought she’d choked on a mint. But when applied at the corporate or government level, self-censorship isn’t just a personal decision we all make to smooth social interactions. In situations like this, it’s poison to the very idea of transparent or accountable governance. And I’ve seen the impact in my own work.
Since I ran my first story on this topic, multiple readers have reached out to tell me they don’t dare share the link. Some of them travel to China regularly. Some of them have friends and family there. This is precisely how self-censorship and China’s social credit monitoring system are supposed to work. When I heard this from readers, it then occurred to me that I might be targeted in some fashion. This is also by design. Anxiety is socially transmissible.
This article is my response.
China’s censors know they can’t control every word that people say on social media. They know even the most ardent human filters cannot read every single line of text before it’s put online. Instead of attempting an impossible task, they rely on the rest of us to do their dirty work for them. I have known people at Blizzard for 20 years. I participated in the closed beta tests for Diablo II, Warcraft 3, World of Warcraft, Diablo III, and many of the WoW expansions. I have written tens of thousands of words about World of Warcraft over the last 15 years. I admire many aspects of the company, but its initial response to this situation was flatly unacceptable. Its current half-retreat wears the queasy smile of an abused individual hoping immediate obeisance will stave off a blow. Having rushed to defend the tender feelings of the Chinese government, the company now feels compelled to tack backward in response to public opinion.
Blizzard could and should do better. It’s one thing to promote free trade of goods and services. It’s another thing entirely to do business when the cost of doing so is the suppression of the rights of private US citizens to speak their minds concerning public affairs of the day. A low-level Marriott employee was bullied off his job for the crime of failing to grasp the context of a complex geopolitical situation on Twitter. This is not some hypothetical “what-if” scenario. China’s censors are already changing content, getting people fired, and controlling the larger narrative around geopolitical events in important ways now.
If we stand by and allow this to happen we will be giving up the right to free speech in the corporatized public-private spaces that now dominate the internet. China will not allow internet companies to operate within its borders without agreeing to enforce its censorship policies. We already know Google was willing to build Project Dragonfly, a new search engine for the Chinese market, despite having previously publicly pledged not to work in the country. Based on how the country is now acting, we can assume any companies with a media presence that extends into China will find themselves policed for improper references to China. How we collectively respond to these events will determine what happens when these collisions of values occur. Google killed Dragonfly only after widespread public outcry and protests from its own employees. When employees, users, and citizens demand companies stand up for the values they claim to stand for (and that Americans wish to stand for in general), there’s a much greater chance of affecting change.
Stand for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.
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