Thin-Skinned Chinese Government Busy Making American Sports Orgs Look Silly On Free Speech Issues
from the villains-of-the-storm dept
It’s no secret that the Chinese government is no friend to free speech. While that statement must seem painfully obvious, the entire world is getting an education into just how thin-skinned Beijing is with the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. While those protesters are chiefly demonstrating for their own civil rights, the Chinese government has apparently made it its business to police the rest of the world’s speech while holding the second largest economy on the planet as a hostage to its own hurt feelings.
And American sporting companies are failing this values test. And failing it badly. We’ll start with the NBA. Days ago, Daryl Morey, the GM for the Houston Rockets, tweeted out an image that included the text, “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” It’s the kind of thing literally anyone could have sent, except that the NBA, and the Rockets in particular, are insanely popular in China. Much of that has to do with Yao Ming having played for the Rockets years ago. Ming now runs the Chinese Basketball Association.
The reaction to all of this was swift. The CBA cut ties with the Rockets. Chinese broadcasters announced they would no longer broadcast NBA pre-season games. A pre-season game that is supposed to be played in China in mere days is up in the air as to whether the game will even be played. And Chinese run media ran with it all, with one article stating:
Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets, has obviously gotten himself into trouble. He tweeted a photo saying “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” on Saturday while accompanying his team in Tokyo. The tweet soon set the team’s Chinese fans ablaze. It can be imagined how Morey’s tweet made them disappointed and furious. Shortly afterward, CCTV sports channel and Tencent sports channel both announced they would suspend broadcasting Rockets’ games. Some of the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners also started to suspend cooperation with the Rockets.
Here’s the thing: Twitter isn’t officially available in China. It’s therefore tough to understand just how these Chinese fans became “ablaze” and “furious” without ever being able to see the tweet, had the Chinese government not decided to feed this whole thing through its well-developed outrage machine. Between that and the simple fact that Morey’s tweet was about as anodyne as one could be on the topic of Hong Kong, you would have thought the NBA would be willing to show at least a little spine. Instead, it issued an apology for offending its Chinese fans, while Morey deleted the tweet entirely.
The NBA issued a statement in English on Sunday, saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended” legions of Chinese fans.
There are reports that the Chinese version of the apology went much, much further in its groveling. This set off a public firestorm in America and elsewhere, with the NBA appearing to bow at the altar of Beijing’s manufactured hurt feelings. It got bad enough that Commissioner Adam Silver finally came out and issued the statement he should have issued to begin with.
Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game¬
It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.
The statement led to even more backlash from China, with sponsorships being pulled, and the broadcast and hosting of NBA games now in serious perpetual doubt. Still, it’s worth noting that it took a severe public backlash to get the NBA to the proper stance, in which it protects and backs the speech rights of its employees.
Whereas Blizzard fully rolled over for Beijing when it yanked the prize money and banned a professional Hearthstone player for making statements similar to Morey’s.
Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player from Hong Kong, ended a stream earlier this week with a statement of support for those engaged in months-long protests against local police and government. As a result of this, Blizzard has ruled that he violated competition rules, and have handed out a heavy punishment.
In the stream, part of the broadcast of the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters, Blitzchung wore a mask (similar to those worn by protesters) and said “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!”
As with the NBA, the Chinese government complained. Unlike the NBA, however, Blizzard seems to have permanently misplaced its spine. The company claimed that the official competition rules were violated, specifically:
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 will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.
It feels easy to argue that Blizzard’s “sole discretion” has been severely miscalculated. The rather tame voice of support by Blitzchung for Hong Kong protests are absolutely the sort of thing the thin-skinned Chinese government deems a problem, but that same analysis should not be reached by an American company. Banning and taking prize money from the competitor in this way is about as stupid as it gets. For one, the American market is important to Blizzard as well, and this sure as hell is not going to play well here. For another, the precedent has now been etched into stone and you can bank that the Chinese government, and others, will see just how far they can slam open this door that Blizzard decided to crack.
It would be better if Blizzard, now as much an eSports company as anything else, along with the NBA, could simply stand up for some basic civil rights and values. Money is good, sure. But selling your soul to an authoritarian government doesn’t seem like a good long term strategy.