Ian Harris: Entertainment vs. the Communist Party of China

Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 5:41pm

Ian Harris

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In the past ten days, the NBA has become embroiled in a PR war with the Chinese government, video game developer Blizzard banned a player for showing solidarity with the people of Hong Kong and South Park was erased from existence within the digital walls of China. In an increasingly connected world of global entertainment, is it fair for consumers to judge companies for kowtowing to the demands of governments that they don’t support? How far should entertainment conglomerates go in order to get into the Chinese marketplace? Is there a line at which consumers and corporations alike should say enough is enough?

Most American citizens probably didn’t grow up thinking much about Hong Kong or the socio-political ramifications of its “one country – two systems” relationship with mainland China. I know I didn’t. It wasn’t something that was taught in school, it wasn’t a part of world history that was treated as significant for American students. The euro-centric view through which world politics and history are taught has been expounded upon to death in other places, so I won’t waste time re-hashing it here. What I will say is that even up to today I never thought much of the situation in Hong Kong besides “bad things are happening there” until a former co-worker of mine from summer camp posted on our old staff Facebook page. A Hong Kong native, he expressed his fear about what was happening in his country and reached out asking for prayers, help and a promise that we would help him raise awareness of what was happening. This column is my way of doing that. 

Over the weekend, Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that said “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Though the tweet was soon deleted, it has created an uproar in both China and the United States. Chinese broadcasters soon announced they would drop Rockets pre-season games from their channels, the NBA commissioner flip-flopped back and forth over what to say in response, and a consensus of social outrage has emerged from Americans upset that one of their nations most popular sports leagues would bend to the whims of what is essentially a country in thrall to a dictator. Blizzard, the company behind games like “World of Warcraft,” banned a player for publicly supporting Hong Kong protestors and was met with a wave of #BoycotBlizzard pronouncements across the internet. South Park responded to being banned in China by continuing to mock the Chinese government. Which of these responses was the right one?

While many have come out against the NBA for attempting to protect their business interests in China over their employees’s right to free speech, few have batted an eye at the ways in which Disney and other media conglomerates have sought to appease the Chinese government and marketplace over the past few years. For years rumors have abounded that the reason why there hasn’t yet been an LGBTQ character introduced in a mainline Marvel or Star Wars movie is because Disney is afraid of how such a character would be perceived in China. This year the Chinese box office is expected to outstrip the USA as the largest film market in the world. Movies that bomb in America are now counting on making up that money overseas, particularly in China. But the Chinese government over the past two decades has slowly tightened the noose on freedom of expression, meaning that for domestic entertainment products to successfully export themselves they must also censor themselves in the process. This is a country that banned Winnie the Pooh because there were memes floating around of the President of the Communist Party that looked sorta like Winnie the Pooh. This is what the NBA is dealing with. Is it right to let a country that is violently putting down protests in Hong Kong every single weekend dictate the terms upon which American entertainment should be made?

Money drives everything in this country and has for a long time. To demand that Disney or the NBA or Blizzard not do business in China would accomplish almost nothing. Apple, Nike, Adidas and dozens of other countries also rely on the Chinese market for huge portions of their revenue. They aren’t just going to stop selling products in every country with policies Americans don’t agree with. But more can be done to prevent their own employees’ freedoms being rolled over in the process. The Rockets GM should be able to tweet his feelings about a totalitarian government that is actively harming its own citizens and he should not be punished for doing so. If we can’t protect that much, if we can’t protect our own freedoms of speech from countries and groups that would seek to silence us, then it doesn’t matter what happens politically in these fifty states because we’ll have already lost where it counts.