China Politics

Chinese anger over Hong Kong ensnared 3 big US businesses this week — and critics say they bent to Beijing

Key Points
  • Apple, Activision and the NBA found themselves in hot water over episodes related to the Hong Kong anti-government protests that angered China.
  • Apple took down an app that allowed Hong Kong protesters to track the movement of police after criticism from Chinese state media.
  • U.S.-based video game company Activision Blizzard suspended a gamer who wore a gas mask and goggles, and appeared to shout a slogan often associated with Hong Kong protesters.
Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the Economic Summit held for the China Development Forum in Beijing on March 23, 2019.
Laurent Fievet | AFP | Getty Images

Three major U.S. businesses angered China this week, and found themselves in hot water over episodes related to the Hong Kong anti-government protests.

However, the three entities — Apple, Activision and the National Basketball Association — all reacted differently to Beijing's outrage. Still, they were all accused of bending to China's will.

Hong Kong — a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 — is a semi-autonomous city which operates under the "one country, two systems" principle, which grants its citizens a certain degree of financial and legal independence from the mainland.

Anti-government protests have rocked the city for four months now. They first erupted over a now withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial. But the demonstrations have since morphed into protests against what Hong Kongers see as Beijing's increasing influence on the territory.

Reactions from the three firms have sparked debate about China's ability to influence discourse on its politics — even outside of its home turf.

NBA

The NBA drama began after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet on Sunday in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The post was quickly deleted but the damage had been done.

The NBA then put out a statement which said it recognized that Morey's views had "offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable." But a separate statement put out in Chinese appeared to take a much tougher line against Morey.

"We are extremely disappointed by the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of our Chinese fans," the Chinese statement said, according to a CNBC translation.

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A look at the fallout following Rockets GM's tweet on Hong Kong

An NBA spokesperson later said "there should be no discrepancy" between statements. "We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league's official statement," the spokesperson said.

This was enough to spark outrage amongst U.S. lawmakers who accused the league of putting money above standing up for human rights. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla. accused the NBA of throwing Morey "under the bus" and allowing China to "punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA's market access" in the mainland.

But Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, subsequently appeared to change the league's stance and support Morey.

"I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression," Silver said in an interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo Japan.

Those remarks did not sit well with state television network CCTV which said it was "strongly dissatisfied" with Silver's comments.

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"We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech," CCTV said in its statement in Chinese, according to a CNBC translation.

CCTV announced it would suspend the current broadcast arrangements for the NBA's preseason games in China. Tencent, the NBA's digital partner in China which streams the games, followed suit.

Silver then came out with another statement explaining the NBA's position.

"It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences," the NBA commissioner said.

But his remarks drew very strong criticism from Chinese state media. State-run newspaper China Daily dubbed Silver's new statement as "honey-mouthed" and said the changes "shows his organization is willing to be another handy tool for US interference in the special administrative region."

"If Silver thinks endorsing the indiscriminate violence the radical Hong Kong protesters are resorting to in their bid to 'liberate' the city, a secessionist pipe dream they are peddling to justify their summer hooliganism, is supporting freedom of expression then he should think again," the paper wrote.

Activision Blizzard

While the NBA took somewhat of a U-turn on its stance toward China, US-based gaming company Activision Blizzard very quickly took action against a gamer who supported the Hong Kong protesters.

In a post-match interview on the Taiwanese stream of Blizzard Entertainment game "Hearthstone", Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai wore a gas mask and goggles, and appeared to shout a slogan often associated with Hong Kong protesters: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time."

Activision Blizzard suspended the player and stripped him of his earnings. The gaming firm argued that Chung broke its competition rules.

It's important to note that Tencent, one of China's largest technology firms, has a stake in Blizzard.

Again Rubio came out to criticize a company he saw as bending over backwards for China.

"China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally," he tweeted.

Anti-Blizzard sentiment spread across the internet with the front page of Reddit dominated by the topic on Wednesday.

Apple

Apple was also caught in the crosshairs of Chinese state media this week.

The tech giant was criticized for a mapping app in its app store that allowed Hong Kong protesters to track the movement of police.

The developers of the app, called HKmap.live, had "ill intentions," the state newspaper People's Daily said in an editorial and accused Apple of helping the "rioters."

"Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong," the People's Daily said. "But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision."

Following the article, Apple on Wednesday said it would remove the HKmap.live app from its store. The iPhone-maker said it had learned that the app had been "used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents" in Hong Kong.

"The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement," Apple said in a statement.

The app's developers tweeted that there is no evidence it "has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement."

It added that Apple's move was "a political decision to suppress freedom" and human rights.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Greater China is an incredibly important region for Apple and was its third-largest market by net sales in the June quarter. It has a long history of complying with what the Chinese government orders.

In 2017, it took down a number of virtual private network (VPN) apps from its app stores. VPNs are required to bypass China's strict internet rules and allow people access to blocked sites and services such as Google. At that time, Apple was accused of aiding government censorship efforts.