Read: Are China’s tantrums signs of strength or weakness?
For a clearer picture of the influence China wields, look no further than a ruckus that unspooled simultaneously with the NBA imbroglio. Last Sunday, Activision Blizzard, an e-gaming company, banned a professional Hearthstone player from the game’s lucrative pro league for a year and forced him to forfeit $10,000 after he said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” in an interview about his tournament wins. Chung Ng Wai, who uses the handle “Blitzchung,” also donned a mask, which has become a symbol of the protests, before he was hustled from the podium. (Blizzard later said it would reduce the one-year suspension to a six-month one, and that it would restore the prize money.)
What’s stunning, or pathetic, is that Activision Blizzard made this decision—citing “damages to the company’s image”—on its own, apparently without direction from Beijing, an indication that the firm, like many others, has internalized Chinese values. Activision Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, where gaming has become a national pastime for a generation of young men. Blizzard has a partnership with the Chinese tech company NetEase, and Tencent owns 5 percent of its parent company.
Blizzard Activision is just one of many corporations that have bent to Chinese whims, perceived or otherwise, in recent years. Corporate heavyweights such as Marriott, Cathay Pacific, Muji, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, United Airlines, Swarovski, Mercedes Benz, Gap, Apple, Google, and Leica have all been targeted by either the Chinese Communist Party or by Chinese netizens for perceived slights. And slight they were indeed. Last week, Tiffany & Co. killed an ad that showed the Chinese model Sun Feifei wearing a Tiffany ring on her right hand, which covered her right eye. Chinese netizens claimed the advertisement could be interpreted as showing support for Hong Kong’s protesters, many of whom hide their faces with masks. Go figure.
Responses by multinationals to China’s wrath have resulted in real-world consequences for innocent workers. In March 2018, Marriott International fired a low-level social-media employee from Omaha after he “liked” a tweet about Tibet that offended the Chinese government. In September, Cathay’s CEO, Rupert Hogg, resigned because China opposed how Cathay had handled its employees who participated in demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Hollywood, ground zero of China’s success at managing the developed world, has not released one major movie with a Chinese villain since 1997. In one film, the 2012 dud Red Dawn, editors actually swapped out Chinese baddies for North Koreans in post-production.
Derek Thompson: The NBA-China disaster is a stress test for capitalism
Although Facebook remains banned in China, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been craven in his efforts to return Facebook to the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. Zuckerberg has pulled publicity stunts such as jogging through thick smog on Tiananmen Square. He has learned broken Chinese. At a White House dinner in 2015, Zuckerberg even had the gumption to ask Chinese President Xi Jinping to give an honorary Chinese name to his unborn child. Xi turned him down. The one big U.S. tech company that has stayed in the China market has been LinkedIn; the price has been aggressive censoring of speech.