How to avoid talking about China

A sequel of sorts to this post about the issue of criticising the government of a country versus criticising the country and it’s peoples.

Events in Hong Kong have quite rightly led to disquiet and anger at the Chinese government. The Chinese government would prefer it if people treated the anti-protest crackdown as a private matter between it and the citizens of Hong Kong. The citizens of Hong Kong (or at least some of them) disagree sharply on that point.

I actually don’t personally know anybody who thinks the anti-protest measures are a good thing or who doesn’t sympathise with the protesters in general. So it is easy to see any voice of support for the protestors as being unambiguously good. But let’s say, for sake of argument, that there was more nuance here, more complexity, etc then “anti-protest measures” are something we should ALWAYS eye sceptically not because all protestors are right but because we should always worry when the police get new powers and when ordinary people get hurt. There is a parallel with war and military action as a government policy — sure we can think of wars that were necessary or even morally imperative but as one of the most extreme things a government can do they should always been critically examined. There are some policies/actions that any and every government should expect significant public pushback against.

Which in a roundabout way takes us to video-games:

“Professional Hearthstone player and Grandmasters tournament competitor Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai gave an interview this week. At the end of it, Chung expressed support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, reciting a protest slogan and wearing a mask associated with the activists who have taken to the streets. His words set off a chain reaction that led to his year-long suspension from Hearthstone competitive play. It has also led to a sudden incursion of political debate in a space that — to its detriment — often works hard to be anything but political. “

Blizzard have suffered a righteous pushback against this with many people boycotting their games. In turn Blizzard have opened up another chapter in the annals of corporations attempting to control or limit what people say.

Blizzard had attempted to push a values-free approach of “no controversy”, a line akin to the idea of “no politics”. It’s a familiar line and the twin to the other values-free stance of absolute free-speech. I find it fascinating that BOTH positions are things that I associate with the modern-right and approaches I have seen people on the right have demanded for science-fiction. We’ve also seen how neither are viable.

  • Absolute free-speech enables bullying and perversely ensures that speech of some people is shut down, marginalised or bullied into silence from hostile and toxic environments.
  • “Politics free” enables the powerful to go unchecked, it allows toxic behaviour to go unchallenged and (surprise, surprise) ensures that speech of some people is shut down, marginalised or bullied into silence from hostile and toxic environments.

The two positions are genuinely polar opposites but play a similar role and have similar consequences. Absolute free-speech enables the loudest voices and “politics free” enables the voices of the most powerfully entrenched.

Sure, it would be great to have a position on free-speech that could be separated from the CONTENT of what is being said but such a thing is a fantasy. It is a fantasy precisely because speech is powerful and hence can cause harm. If speech was not powerful then free-speech wouldn’t be important!

There was a way out for Blizzard, a way for them to retain the idea that they could enforce “no controversy” but it wouldn’t be easy. The way out would be simply to have no involvement with the Chinese government in a way. In such circumstance, statements about Hong Kong would be effectively neutral to them rather than “controversial”. Of course, that is in no way feasible in a global economy where China as a country is an important part but it highlights how ideas like “politics free” is itself not a neutral idea but one that requires somebody to draw a line between what is politics & what is not and between what is controversial and what is not.

Nationalism in particular politicises everything. Governments that conflate criticism of themselves with criticism of the nation they govern and the people within their nation (or even people of connected ethnicities beyond their borders) set out to make criticism controversial and even more adversarial. It is the mirror of bigots who use the behaviour of a government as a basis for attacking people based on ethnicity. That was the theme of my earlier post, highlighting how nationalists with opposing sympathies openly shape their rhetoric to make the argument about ordinary people rather than the actions of governments.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Israel as an example here. It is paradigmatic of the problem, where far-right nationalist governments in Israel conflate criticism of government policy with anti-semitism and where far-right anti-semites internationally use Israel government policy as a basis for justifying their anti-semitism. The net effect is to poison discourse and to create a kind of emotional or discursive tax on discussion. I’ve mentioned a similar dynamic in Australia where criticism of the Chinese government can be exploited by nationalist elements in Australia and tap into a deep vein of anti-Chinese racism within Australia.

There is no easy way out. There are matters that we should speak loudly about and the multiple nationalist crackdowns worldwide can’t be ignored. However, we also need to speak with both care and compassion. We should avoid metonymic references to “China” when we mean specifically the Chinese *government*. We should avoid ethnic stereotyping always. We should avoid implying that individuals have dual loyalties. We should avoid falling back on lazy nationalistic or conspiratorial tropes of the past.

I’d like to finish on the question of boycotts versus avoidance. The question of whether a group or a business can do business with or have a commercial relationship with a country with an authoritarian government is a fraught one. There is a positive argument that economic or cultural engagement can help a country. However, like speech, such involvement can never be values-free. It means that you are in a position where politics and controversy are things that can happen to you as a consequence. Even if nobody is calling for a boycott of Country-A currently, if you are doing business with/in Country-A and events or government policy shifts then you aren’t going to be in a position of being blissfully neutral about that. That doesn’t mean that if you do business with Country-A then you are endorsing all the policies of its government but it does mean you are saying that it is politically better at that time to engage with them rather than not engage – and that is a political statement.

“No politics” is not an option.

15 thoughts on “How to avoid talking about China

  1. I think it’s important to keep this conversation going, no matter how small or trivial the Chinese government’s other actions may seem in light of the HK protests and the Uyghur massacre in particular. I don’t think we can keep letting their behaviour towards, eg, Taiwan slide or we may end up with more scenes like Hong Kong.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. ” If speech was not powerful then free-speech wouldn’t be important!”

    Hear, hear! This is something I try to point out often, but which surprisingly many seem to not understand.

    It’s self contradictory to argue both that free speech is vital to democracy and that citizens must be allowed to criticize authorities, and simultaneously argue that abuse, slander, lies and violent retorics is harmless and unproblematic because “words can’t harm you”.

    Words, arguments, speech, can change opinions and behaviour. That’s why free speech is important. And that’s also why some limitations on how people express themselves gives us more freedom, even more freedom of speech.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “Blizzard had attempted to push a values-free approach of “no controversy”, a line akin to the idea of “no politics”.”

    No they haven’t. They’ve attempted to push a their-values approach to political expression in their game world/sites. They’re pro-China authoritarian government and more importantly, keeping their China market open. The only time a company tries to make their sites and policies “politics free” is when they’re pushing anti-democracy, far right political views as well as a serf mentality about workers and worker rights in their company. The no politics, no controversy line always means silence civil rights dissent, maintaining marginalization of customers and employees in marginalized groups and pushing a view of medieval fiefdom politics (which scavenger capitalists like to pretend is “capitalism” these days.)

    The people who are running Blizzard are anti-free speech and pro-controlled speech. Which, as a private company, they have a right to run it that way and ban a player from using their stuff — as long as they aren’t actually violating people’s civil rights. Such as preventing gamers from being able to cancel their accounts with Blizzard:

    That’s not free speech and it’s not politically neutral. It’s a we can hurt you but you can’t abandon or criticize us repression. And it’s a pretty typical attempt for a non-government organization that wants to pretend doing business on a large scale doesn’t involve a ton of political choices and actions while actively embroiling themselves in politics.

    When students and others protested South African apartheid and organized boycotts (free speech,) and called for companies and universities to also boycott and divest from South Africa while it maintained the civil rights abuses and killings of apartheid, many, many companies whined about it, said they wanted to be politically “neutral,” — i.e. have right wing support for apartheid, said that people shouldn’t be able to boycott them for being right wing, and all the rest. That was a political choice to support apartheid by those companies in reaction to the political choice and free speech of customers and employees. Some companies made a different choice and did boycott South Africa or eventually reversed their right-wing political choice against doing so because it economically didn’t make sense. Because customers have a free speech right to say what they want from companies trying to sell them stuff and what is acceptable to them about who they do business with. They have a right to not buy from any company and a free speech right to publicly declare they’re boycotting a company for its practices and politics. And employees have a free speech right to protest how their employer operates politically and how they treat employees at home and abroad — and to organize for better labor conditions and pay.

    Blizzard’s execs made a political choice and they are still making them. And people are making their political choices about the company. Other game companies are making their choices to not follow Blizzard’s choice.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Well, this chap’s got an optimistic take:

    “And the biggest potential silver lining regarding China’s entertainment industry dominance is the fact that they probably won’t be Commies for long.

    As I’ve written here before, China is on track to become the world’s most Christian nation by 2030 and majority Christian by 2050.

    Think of it. Chinese communists take over Hollywood. A few years later, China is still in charge, only the Commies are now Christians.

    We might actually have a shot at getting a Combat Frame XSeed movie made at that point. Read it now so you’re ready for the premiere!”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. He certainly has his priorities straight.

      Apropos of nothing, you could make a pretty good case that the Chinese aren’t communist *now*. I’ve seen the terms “Socialist Market Economy” and “State Capitalism” thrown around; I think the latter makes more sense.

      Sure, they still *call* themselves communist, they still pay lip service to communism and they certainly have an authoritarian one-party government. That doesn’t actually make them communist any more! We need some better terminology.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. And Blizzard is now trying for a partial back-down by reducing the suspensions to six months and giving the guy back his prize money. And claiming that China had nothing to do with their initial decision. How much you want to bet that dozens of folks can pull up examples of people saying political things during games that lean right and weren’t claimed by Blizzard to be a distraction to the game?

    Liked by 4 people

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