American Companies and the Controversy They Spark in Hong Kong

BY: SARAH GOVERT

Hong Kong citizens have protested every weekend for the past four months. Recently these protests have escalated in violence, but why should we care about the protests happening in Hong Kong? The answer: it’s complicated.

Markets around the world have become more and more politicized following the Hong Kong protests. Controversies have arisen as the protests have garnered the sympathy and support of American companies. The New York Times lists some of these controversies with Western companies. Coach, Givenchy, and Versace produced shirts that identified Hong Kong as an independent country. Tiffany & Co ran an ad in which a model held her hand over her right eye (a reference to the protester in Hong Kong getting shot in the eye). Other companies have acted in support of the Chinese government. Two of the biggest are Blizzard and the NBA. (New York Times Business, 2019)

Blizzard is a video game developer and publisher whose credits include games such as Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Hearthstone. On October 6th, immediately after winning one of the largest Hearthstone tournaments in the East, professional video game player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai was banned from playing Hearthstone for a year, and all his outstanding prize money was revoked. The punishment came after a post-game interview in which Blitzchung said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” This punishment by Blizzard resulted in extreme backlash from players, fans, and even employees of Blizzard. As a result of public backlash to Blitzchung’s ban, Blizzard reduced both Blitzchung’s and the casters who conducted the interview’s bans from a year to six months. Blitzchung also received all the prize money he was owed, but the damage was already done. This situation sparked a bipartisan agreement between Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida reprimanding Blizzard’s censorship. Following this incident, many well-known players have stated that they will not cast at BlizzCon 2019 from November 1-3. Other game developers are responding to Blitzchung’s controversial punishment as well. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, tweeted out that “That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder.” (Beauchamp, 2019)

Recently, the NBA has found itself in a similar situation as Blizzard. According to TIME.com, “The controversy erupted after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets… 

appeared to support Hong Kong demonstrators in a tweet late Friday.” (Wallbank and Cang, 2019) The tweet was quickly deleted, but the Chinese saw the incident as an additional Westerm company questioning the motives and control mainland China has over Hong Kong. China is the NBA’s leading market internationally, leading to extremely profitable licensing/retail deals growing for the past 11 years. The NBA is now at risk of losing all of this. The tweet by Morey contained an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Multiple companies such as Li Ning Co. (sportswear) and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center have already suspended cooperation with the Rockets, and Rockets gear doesn’t come up anymore when searched for on Chinese e-commerce sites operated by JD.com Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Following Morey’s tweet, the NBA released an apology calling Morey’s statement regrettable and that the business is “deeply disappointed about Morey’s inappropriate comment” and that “he undoubtedly has hurt Chinese fans’ feelings severely.” (Wallbank and Cang, 2019) With their cautious approach to handling the situation, the NBA’s actions, much like Blizzard’s, led to bipartisan criticism. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blasted the NBA for “shamefully retreating”, with both Democratic presidential candidates from Texas agreeing; O’Rourke called the apology “an embarrassment” and presidential nominee Julián Castro stated that Americans can’t be “bullied by an authoritarian government.” (Wallbank and Cang, 2019) Some players have unintentionally gotten involved in this larger controversy. On October 14th, LeBron James was interviewed and stated  “we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.” The international backlash was immediate. In Hong Kong on Tuesday, October 15th, a group of around 200 gathered on a basketball court to chant their support for Morey and direct obscenities towards James, with one throwing a basketball at a picture of James and trampling on his jersey. Some protesters in Hong Kong even burned his jersey. James Lo, a web designer that runs a basketball fan page in Hong Kong said that, “James’s comments had infuriated many in Hong Kong… We just can’t accept that.” (Guardian, 2019) 

As American companies take a stance on Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s craving for independence gains more publicity every day. This has created a cycle where more companies are being forced to choose between their economic interests and their morals. If they side with China, they have access to one of the most lucrative markets in the world; however, is that worth widespread criticism and boycotts back in the states? When this cycle forces massive corporations such as the NBA and Blizzard to take a stance, our entire nation’s foreign policy is affected. This directly shows how incredibly powerful protesting for what you believe in can truly be. To learn more about the background of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, check out this article.

Further Reading:

Companies involved in China controversies: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/business/dealbook/china-companies-nba.html

All there is to know about Blizzard: https://www.cnet.com/news/blizzard-hearthstone-and-the-hong-kong-protests-heres-what-you-need-to-know/

Info about Morey: https://time.com/5694150/nba-china-hong-kong/

Why Hong Kong hates LeBron: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/oct/15/hong-kong-protestors-burn-lebron-james-jerseys-nba

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