Update 8:59 am ET: We have added statements from Google, Riot Games, Blizzard and Blitzchung to this story, and ongoing coverage of Blizzard controversy.
Several notable tech companies are under scrutiny after taking actions that negatively impact Hong Kong protesters.
The 2019 Hong Kong protests started to kick up back in March 2019 when the Hong Kong government proposed the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill, which would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people who are wanted in Taiwan and China. People are afraid that this bill will undermine the autonomy of Hong Kong, as it subjects anyone on Hong Kong soil to Chinese jurisdiction.
Various major tech and gaming companies have taken actions related to the Hong Kong protests, from removing apps used by protesters to silencing professional gamers speaking out against the Chinese government. Here's how Apple, Google and Blizzard sided with China on Hong Kong protests.
Apple on Hong Kong protests
Apple removed an iOS app called HKmap.live from its store, which let protesters see Hong Kong police movements via crowd-sourced information. This app was useful to protesters and even the average person to avoid a conflict with the police, who continue to brutalize people.
The app was removed a day after People’s Daily, China’s state-run news outlet, posted an article that called the protesters "rioters" and claimed that Apple is "helping [them] engage in more violence." Additionally, the People’s Daily was annoyed that Apple also let the song "Hong Kong Independence" be available on its platforms.
Interestingly enough, the app was removed, brought back and then removed again in the span of a few days. Apple told Mark Gurman, a Bloomberg reporter, that the app "violates local laws" and that the company believes the app is being used to target specific police officers.
Here's the full statement from Apple below:
After rejecting the Hong Kong maps app, then approving it, Apple has now removed it, again saying it “violates local laws.” Full Apple response: https://t.co/dhYAyaxtXV pic.twitter.com/2RNkihH7raOctober 10, 2019
Daring Fireball wrote about how Tim Cook's memo on the app doesn't add up. John Gruber quotes Maciej Ceglowski, who has been in Hong Kong for weeks, who states that "The first allegation is that 'the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence'. This makes no sense at all. The app does not show the locations of individual officers at all. It shows general concentrations of police units, with a significant lag."
Ceglowski goes on to say, "Moreover, what are these incidents where protesters have targeted individual police for a premeditated attack? Can Mr. Cook point to a single example? Can anyone?"
This isn't the first time that Apple has sought to appease China.
Apple has also pulled the Taiwanese flag emoji from its users in China as well as banned hundreds of VPNs. Apple even banned the Quartz news app from the Chinese App Store for covering the Hong Kong protests.
According to Bloomberg News, Apple has a major incentive to keep China happy, as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are collectively the second largest market for the company.
Google on Hong Kong protests
Similarly, Google has also banned an app from its Play Store, specifically a game called The Revolution of Our Times, which was very much pro-Hong Kong protest.
The beginning of the game's description reads: "Hong Kong was once a prosperous city protected by rule of law, but Carrie Lam has single-handedly destroyed everything by trying to pass a very controversial extradition will while ignoring the wishes of more than two million Hong Kong people."
Meanwhile the images of the game seem to depict some sort of text-based adventure.
"We have a long-standing policy prohibiting developers from capitalizing on sensitive events such as attempting to make money from serious ongoing conflicts or tragedies through a game," a Google spokesperson told us. "After careful review, we found this app to be violating that particular policy and suspended it, as we have done with similar attempts to profit from other high-profile events such as earthquakes, crises, suicides and conflicts."
The spokesperson also said that "I can confirm that this enforcement on the 'Revolution of Our Times' game was not the result of any takedown request."
The game was free with in-app purchases ($0.99 to $14.99), and had a 5 star review with 277 ratings and over 1,000 installs.
The cached version of the game's Play Store page can still be found here.
Interestingly enough, the HKmap.live app that Apple removed is still available on the Play Store (for now).
Blizzard on Hong Kong protests
On October 5, Blizzard suspended a pro Hearthstone player from Hong Kong, Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai, from the Grandmasters tournament for sharing his support for the Hong Kong protests.
Breaking: Effective immediately, Blizzard has removed Hong Kong Hearthstone player blitzchung from Hearthstone Grand Masters, rescinded all his prize money, and have suspended him from pro play for one year for his recent interview. Statement below https://t.co/ByI8vrZk1a pic.twitter.com/3h6jKYezMQOctober 8, 2019
On stream, Blitzchung wore a mask that the protesters used and said "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!"
According to Blizzard's tournament rules, Blitzchung engaged in an act that "damages Blizzard image." Thus, resulting in Blitzchung's "removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD."
Blizzard suspended Blitzchung from competing in Hearthstone for a whole year, starting October 5, and according to the New York Times, was stripped of around $10,000.
Not only that, but Blizzard also fired both of its casters that did nothing but their jobs on the stream. The announcers ducked under their desk, and according to Inven Global, said "OK, that’s it, Blitz bro" and cut to commercial break.
Blitzchung issued the following statement to Inven Global:
"As you know there are serious protests in my country now. My call on stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention. I put so much effort in that social movement in the past few months, that I sometimes couldn’t focus on preparing my Grandmaster match. I know what my action on stream means. It could cause me lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue."
Meanwhile, Blizzard finished its ruling by stating "While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules."
This caused major controversy in and out of the Blizzard offices. Fans took to Reddit with memes and images showing Hong Kong support, while employees staged a walk out and covered up its "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" values circling the giant orc statue in the middle of Blizzard's campus.
Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened.Both the "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6QOctober 8, 2019
A longtime Blizzard employee told the Daily Beast that "The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising. Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values."
Blizzard's connection to China is simple. The company gained 12% of its revenue from the Asia-Pacific region last quarter, and Tencent, a Chinese tech company, owns a 5% stake in Blizzard.
"I’m disappointed," another employee told the Daily Beast. "We want people all over the world to play our games, but no action like this can be made with political neutrality."
However, Blizzard has since released a statement, claiming that "The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision."
J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, also said in the statement that the company is reducing the punishment of Blitzchung to a six-month suspension. Additionally, Blitzchung will receive all of the prize money he earned during the tournament. Blizzard is still making the two casters out be responsible, and giving them the same punishment, albeit reduced.
Brack states "We hire shoutcasters to amplify the excitement of the game. They elevate the watchability and help the esports viewing experience stay focused on the tournament and our amazing players."
And despite everything that happened, Brack claims, "Every Voice Matters, and we strongly encourage everyone in our community to share their viewpoints in the many places available to express themselves. However, the official broadcast needs to be about the tournament and to be a place where all are welcome. In support of that, we want to keep the official channels focused on the game."
It'll be interesting to see Blizzard's reaction to the statement from William Barton, another Hearthstone professional player, who Tweeted "As a player in the Grandmaster League, I support democracy, free speech, and the right of people in Hong Kong and around the world to assemble in protest, and I do not support Blizzard or anyone else playing a role in the silencing of these views."
My statement on Blizzard and Blitzchung: pic.twitter.com/XYt5Ho22yCOctober 10, 2019
"We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took," Brack continues. "If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same."
Of course, fans on Reddit still seem to think otherwise.
"I'm grateful for Blizzard reconsidering their position about my ban," Blizchung responded to Blizzard's statement. "To be honest, I think six months is still quite a lot to me. But I also being told that I can continue to compete in the hearthstone pro circuit which they mean the grandmaster tournament. I appreciate for this decision they made because grandmaster is currently the highest level tournament in competitive hearthstone. However, I wish Blizzard can reconsider about their penalty on the two casters involved."
Blitzchung ended his statement by saying he's unsure whether or not he'll continue competing in Hearthstone in the future.
Meanwhile, Blizzard has since cancelled its Overwatch launch event for the Nintendo Switch at NintendoNYC, which was slated to take place on October 16. There wasn't a specific reason, but it may have something to do with Overwatch character Mei being used as a symbol to support Hong Kong protests.
Additionally, Blizzard recently banned a college team of three for six months because they also showed their support on stream, like Blitzchung did. They all held up a "Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz" sign, as depicted below:
Epic Games and Riot Games on Hong Kong protests
Shortly after the Blizzard banned Blitzchung, Fornite developer Epic Games told The Verge that "Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a Fortnite player or content creator for speaking on these topics."
A message from John Needham, Global Head of League of Legends Esports pic.twitter.com/5Au9rE7T86October 11, 2019
But more recently, John Needham, Global Head of League of Legends Esports for Riot Games, took to Twitter to issue a statement on the matter, saying that "we believe this opportunity comes with a responsibility to keep personal views on sensitive issues (political, religious, or otherwise) separate)."
Needham also said that they "reminded casters and pro players to refrain from discussing any of these topic on air."
We imagine that we'll hear more from other companies that have esports games in their lineup on the matter in the coming days.
Electronic Frontier Foundation on Hong Kong protests
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a blog post detailing the danger of China's global reach.
Danny O'Brien writes, "In attempting to silence protests that lie outside the Firewall, in full view of the rest of the world, China is showing its hand, and revealing the tools it can use to silence dissent or criticism worldwide."
O'Brien also goes on to explain why companies like Apple, Google and Blizzard might want to appease China in these situations.
"China can use threats of boycotts or the denial of access to Chinese markets to silence these companies when they, or people affiliated with them, express support for the Hong Kong protestors."
While you, the consumer, won't be inherently affected by each of these company's actions, you should know what Apple, Google and Blizzard are doing to suppress the rise of democracy in China. Especially if knowing that information informs your decision the next time you buy an iPhone, a Pixel or the next lootbox in Overwatch.
Blizzard fans and even ex-developers have already started boycotting the company's products. Many more movements are likely to follow until something changes.