The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might have realized its usual tactic of coercing private companies has failed for once.

Over the past two weeks, the American public increasingly paid attention to China as controversies erupted over censoring political comments in private sectors.

South Park’s October 2 episode “Band in China,” which portrayed and satirized American submission to Chinese censorship demands, blew up in the news within a few days as the cartoon episode became a reality.

Two days after the airing of the South Park episode, Houston Rockets’s General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters and it led to a major backlash from China. Nationalism-fueled Chinese netizens soon began urging actions against the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Houston Rockets. As a result, Morey deleted his tweet and promptly apologized.

Daryl Morey’s original tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests.

The debate on self-censorship spread from traditional to digital sports on October 8. Blizzard Entertainment, a prominent American video game company, punished Hong Kong Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung (nicknamed Blitzchung) for saying the pro-democracy protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” at the end of a gaming competition. The company stripped away Chung’s prize money from the tournament and issued a year-long suspension on the player.

Initially, U.S. companies have seemingly fallen in line to appease their Chinese market. Pro-China trolls flooded Morey’s twitter to harass him over his tweet. China’s Tencent and state-owned media immediately announced an end to broadcasting NBA games. At first glance, the Chinese government’s heavy-handed approach seemed to have shut Americans up.

But targeted individuals quickly found supportive voices within their organizations and in the American public. Self-censorship as a result of China’s political coercion was unacceptable given its compromise on democratic values such as freedom of speech. NBA Commissioner Adam Silvers, for example has reiterated the NBA’s support of diversity in ethnicities, backgrounds, and views. Blizzard has also been criticized by fans and employees over its decision, with protests staged at the company’s statute in Irvine, California.

Two NBA exhibition games were held in China after controversies with Morey’s tweet without disruption. Bleachers quickly filled up, seemingly in contradiction to the widespread calls for boycott and anti-American sentiment on the Chinese internet. It was as though the nationalist sentiments raging over the Chinese internet were completely unrepresentative of reality.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

A poster of NBA's Los Angeles Lakers player LeBron James with China national flag is seen outside Mong Kok Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station during an anti-government protest, in Hong Kong, October 20, 2019.

In an act uncharacteristic of Beijing’s talk-big, high pressure coercion campaign, the Chinese government began to throttle nationalist sentiments. Tencent reversed its decision on boycotting the NBA and resumed broadcasting the games. Blizzard also returned the prize money to Chung.

Though it is unknown why Beijing suddenly decided to pull the pressure campaign from under the rug, there are multiple reasons that stand out.

For one, the attention given to the controversy blew way out of proportion and for the first time attracted criticism across a wide spectrum of the American public. In the past, these pressure campaigns were quick and subtle, and achieved the goal of eliciting an apology in isolation from other incidents.

This time, however, a string of incidents backfired. South Park made a blatant political statement by having a character proclaim “Fuck the Chinese government!” after the show was banned in China, just as fans from both traditional and digital sports were equally outraged by Chinese censorship. Beijing’s demands only drew more popular attention to the protests in Hong Kong, and its media threats have only exposed its inability in resolving the ongoing unrest and discontent.

In addition, the potential economic damage to Tencent, increasingly a state-owned enterprise, would be massive if it followed through with the NBA broadcast cancellations. Tencent would not only lose the profits from the audience, but would also violate its US$1.5 billion contract with the NBA.

Although the CCP has attempted to control its domestic social media, the controversy over Chinese censorship has taken the international spotlight. Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, known as “PewDiePie,” is a gaming Youtuber with over 100 million subscribers. He took advantage of the occasion to discuss China’s censorship of Winnie the Pooh and criticize Blizzard’s questionable move to appease the Chinese government.

The danger is becoming clear for Beijing: not only has awareness of its censorship abroad spread among the press, but also among everyday discussions.

After witnessing the mess Blizzard created over the Hearthstone incident, its competitor Riot Games, which is fully owned by Tencent, said it will not give specific instructions on discussing Hong Kong. Epic Games, which operates Fortnight and is 40-percent owned by Tencent, also announced that it will not "ban players for political speech."

For now, it seems like Beijing’s attempt of bringing NBA and video game companies to bend the knee has ended in failure, and even backfired significantly.

Beijing’s bullying of American businesses has encountered a road block; the backlash this time shows how Beijing’s coercion on private companies can be resisted when public responses raise enough attention.

The CCP will continue to maintain an appearance of strength by manipulating media rhetorics, propaganda, and social media narratives. As Beijing continues to lay claims of absolute sovereignty over territories that it does not have control over, it will continue to face resistance. The cases today with American sports are just the tip of the iceberg showing how the Chinese government needs to silence dissent just to keep an appearance of stability.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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