The Cost of Doing Business with China
In the last few days, a great deal has been written about Activision Blizzard and their subsequent banning of a Hearthstone player who expressed support for the Hong Kong protestors during a competition live stream. The US-based game developer and publisher has also chosen to withhold the prize money he would have earned from competing in the tournament. As a result of this media coverage, I do not feel obliged to address the rectitude of Blizzard’s decision. It was never going to be anything different than what it was. They made their choice regarding ethics and morality the moment they decided to expand their business operations in mainland China. Because once you decided to enter into a business partnership with a totalitarian regime that actively runs “re-education camps”, you’ve pretty much nailed your colours to the mast and chosen a side. It’s not just business, despite what apologists may tell you. Judge a man or a business by the company they keep.
However, there are two wider issues that have arisen from this situation that perhaps can be seen as broadly positive. Firstly, parts of the gaming community have finally had the scales lifted from their eyes regarding the true nature of the video games industry. Secondly, people are now becoming more aware of the extent of Chinese business influence both in the US and other countries and to what extent Western business is happy to appease them. Let us take a moment to consider the first of these. I have been banging on for years about how so many gamers erroneously think that the companies that make their favourite games are somehow their friend. In many ways Blizzard has been the embodiment of this fallacious and specious notion. Although there are some developers or community managers who are genuinely reasonable and measured individuals, these are not the people driving the company. Corporate policy is decided at a much higher level by people such as Bobby Kotick. And like a lot of other modern CEOs, ethics, morality and generally being a decent human being are not top priorities. In fact they’re a major hindrance. Do some research of your own on Mr Kotick (or ask Jim Sterling) and decide for yourself what sort of man he is.
So a lot of gamers have suddenly got wise to the fact that the company they used to think was cool because staff don’t wear suits to work and can unicycle around the office, is in fact just another corporate behemoth striving to make as much money as possible, irrespective of the consequences. Blizzard is tainted and now some gamers are worried about guilt by association. It’s an odd situation to be honest. Some gamers are obviously staggeringly naïve but there again, that’s hardly surprising as people are surprisingly politically illiterate these days. I don’t mean this is a pejorative sense, it’s just a simple truth. A lot of people are not in any way credibly informed about domestic politics, let alone the complexities of international relationships. And then there’s another element to this. The gamer who suspects that there’s an unethical wider picture to the video games industry but chooses to not “know about it”. I heard similar arguments regarding eating meat, which go something like this. “I choose to remain wilfully ignorant of the iniquities of the meat industry. I suspect that livestock are treated appallingly but if I choose not to know, I can enjoy eating meat without any moral burden and maintain my claim that I’m a good person”. Yep, gamers have their own version of this, too.
Moving on to the second potentially positive point that’s come out of this whole sorry affair; people have now realised that it is not just Activision Blizzard who are happy to self-censor and generally side with China whenever there’s a conflict of interest between West and East. Over the last few days, several websites and subreddits have compiled substantial lists of companies towing the political line to appease China and keep the revenue flowing. Furthermore, because China is such a big market for mainstream Hollywood movies these days, it’s come to light that a lot of screenplays are being tailormade for its specific “political and social” requirements. And irrespective of the need to “accommodate” China for “business reasons”, people are now beginning to become aware of the scope and reach of Chinese business in the West per se. This isn’t really the place for an in-depth dissection of what they do and do not own but if you do some research, you’ll find China is involved with key US and UK industries such as farming, logistics and utilities. And then there’s the issue of land banking. All of which can be used for political leverage if required.
Now as a result of this debacle, there has been a plethora of tediously predictable kneejerk reactions. As usual some gamers have been calling for a boycott of Blizzard products. There’s also been the “restless lynch mob” mentality on social media and moral outrage has been turned up to 11. Such hastily contrived bandwagons often fizzle out and can do more harm than good. However, a measured campaign of publicly questioning the cognitive dissonance inherent in being an American business that consorts with a dictatorship, may yield results in the long term. Raising questions via your political representative can take time but the wheels do turn. Now it has been pointed out by the “usual suspects”, that it’s a bit rich getting all “high and mighty” about the ethics of this one issue, when our consumer lives are rife with Chinese products. But I refute the intellectual bankruptcy of this faux argument that seems to think that one can only have an ethical position of worth, if you are 100% morally pure. Bullshit. Yes, we are all to a degree complicit in bolstering China by our consumer choices but that doesn’t mitigate the worth or rectitude of beginning to make a stand. It takes time to inform people and then get them to change their views and habits.
And as for those people who think that this whole situation is just business doing what business does, please stop assuming that your lack of morals and empathy is also the default position of society. It isn’t. People do actually expect a degree of ethical behaviour from corporations. Now that may be foolish but it remains a valid view. And as big business has shown time and time again that it doesn’t have a shred of human decency, the only way we are going to get companies to act in a vaguely appropriate fashion is to legally compel them to do so and sanction them when they do not. Doing business with China is not the same as doing business with any other democratic country. It is a Faustian arrangement which comes with caveats. Caveats that may put a company at odds with the inherent principles of their own country. There is a price to pay for such an arrangement and that is your “corporate reputation”. I still find it odd that people and business that act appallingly try to cultivate an image of “be nice”. I have far more respect for the “bastard” that’s content to be one.
For those who still remain unconvinced that the censoring and sanctioning of Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai by Blizzard is anything to worry about, let me remind you of what China’s top broadcaster, government-run CCTV, stated recently about the concept of freedom of speech. That it should not be extended to points of view counter to the ruling Communist Party’s. “No comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression”. Reflect upon that. Blizzard and many other companies are in a business relationship with a regime that is at odds with Western values. Furthermore, these international companies choose to actively collude with a government in its acts of oppression, because of the financial opportunities available. At the very least that is immoral. At the worst they are benefitting from blood money. If you thinks that’s hyperbolic please remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests when China mobilised 300,000 troops on the streets of Beijing and fired upon student protesters. A historical event that is still supressed in China itself. And considering the current events in Hong Kong, one that may be soon repeated? Blizzard and many other companies need to reflect upon this, although I suspect they won’t. I’m not sure if they are capable.