In summary: On Friday night, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a fairly bland slogan-like expression of support—“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”—for ongoing protests against the mainland Chinese government’s encroachment on the autonomy of Hong Kong. Because the Rockets are the second-most popular NBA team in China, and because access to China’s media and economy is tightly controlled by a tiny number of vastly powerful people at the very top of Chinese society, this simple tweet turns out to have touched a third rail.
By the close of the weekend, powerful quasi-governmental Chinese business concerns had pulled out of major partnerships with the Rockets and threatened the team with a total blackout across the nation. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and the NBA league office itself had issued statements distancing themselves from Morey’s tweet. The owner of the Brooklyn Nets had accused Morey, in so many words, of Doing an Imperialism against China. James Harden had literally apologized to China. Morey himself had issued a sweaty two-part retreat on Twitter amid rumblings that he might even get fired over the mess. (Needless to say, the offending tweet is gone, all seven broad, doomed words of it.)
When our own Kyle Wagner wrote, back in 2014, that the future of culture war was Gamergate, which weaponized both the cravenness of corporate America and the cluelessness and performative evenhandedness of mainstream media, he did so with shocking prescience. The past five years have featured more iterations and adaptations of the Gamergate playbook—a powerful reactionary body creating a storm of phony grievance and victimhood as a pretext for attacking its critics, and counting on both corporate interests and mainstream media observers being too cowardly and smooth-brained to do more than uncritically yield to it—than I could begin to recount here without sawing my own head off, up to and including the president of the United States Gamergating the NFL into bending the knee, metaphorically, over the supposed horror of Colin Kaepernick silently bending his. Still, I think everybody involved in the creation of that article (which, hilariously, looks more and more like the defining document of 21st-century society with each passing year) would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested, at the time, that by the end of 2019 the original Gamergate formula, with only minor revisions reflecting the difference between two systems for organizing society, would be getting a cover version performed by the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Stay with me, here. The parallels really are something!
Here, the Chinese government, or the tiny number of zillionaire nationalist oligarchs who run it, is Gamergate: A numerically small but disproportionately powerful and visible body representing entrenched privilege. The people of mainland China, all 1.4 billion of them, here play the role unwittingly assumed by the total consumer base for video games in the original Gamergate: The silent but economically important wider body invoked mostly in absentia by the aggrieved agitators at the core of the campaign. (A difference in this case is that, where the general population of American video-game consumers mostly are just politically incoherent and/or young children and/or parents happy not to know anything about gamer culture so long as it reliably consumes their children’s attention for hours each day, the Chinese people mostly do not even have the option of speaking for themselves without fear of being disappeared from the face of the earth.)
The Hong Kong extradition bill that prompted the protests here takes the role of any of the handful of incidents (or non-incidents) seized upon as the incitements of Gamergate. The bill’s proposal, the protests in response, and the Chinese government’s response to those do genuinely point to real and unresolved tensions within what may previously have seemed to uninterested outsiders like a stable relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong—as the gaming ecosystem seemed to outsiders pre-Gamergate. Morey, responding to the resulting tumult with the kind of statement easily sorted into context by anybody not farming for grievances, is any of the number of journalists or game-industry types who got ratfucked for similar by Gamergate. Brianna Wu? Leigh Alexander? Sam Biddle (lol)?
China’s vast business conglomerates, withdrawing from their relationships with Morey’s Rockets, are an unholy amalgam of Gamergate itself and the American advertisers who pissed down their legs and abandoned Gamergate’s targets in 2014—an amalgam made possible by the particulars of this controversy, in which the raging reactionaries at the core of the spasm also happen to control the businesses helping sell the Rockets and the NBA to the vast Chinese market. Joe Tsai, the Nets owner, in lending to a punitive outlashing a phony veneer of high-mindedness and credibility (the invocation of “the way hundreds of millions of Chinese fans feel” and referring to the Hong Kong protests as a “separatist movement” are particularly slimy touches) for the sake of servicing his own cynical priors, is any of the number of opportunist vultures who rushed to do the same for Gamergate. Christina Hoff Sommers? Andrew Sullivan? Joe Rogan (lol)? The ones who helped a campaign to advance one agenda—in this case, the Chinese government’s insistence on absolute dominion over how it is thought about and discussed by anybody operating within the shadow of its power—pretend it was about something else entirely: the Chinese people’s reasonable wariness toward any perceive threats against their national sovereignty.
And so then, the Rockets and the NBA, shitting and barfing all over themselves in their frenzied rush to appease and mollify a campaign explicitly at odds with the sorts of at least pluralist-adjacent values they’d otherwise like to portray themselves upholding, are... well... this blog, or any of the other quavering equivocations and capitulations Gamergate’s targets offered in 2014. And the media now is the media then: Clueless, drowsy, not really knowing what it’s looking at, and so just defaulting to repeating whoever’s speaking loudest. That’s how you get a headline on ESPN like “Adam Silver supports free speech rights of Rockets GM Daryl Morey,” hours after Adam Silver’s office did everything it could to sacrifice Morey on the altar of its relationship with a foreign government explicitly working to silence him.
To be clear, what’s happening here is part of something much larger and more terrifying than the original Gamergate. The Chinese government, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, one responsible for numerous ongoing outrages against human rights and privacy in and outside its borders—including a present-day program of genocide against its Muslim population in Xinjiang—is organizing to make it financially unfeasible and professionally suicidal for anyone in the world to criticize it, even mildly. In this effort it is receiving, if not eager, then certainly swift assistance from institutions of American culture and society. Its playbook for ensuring that assistance just happens to be one a bunch of 4chan dickheads made famous when they rolled Intel into pulling some ads off of a website called Gamasutra.
Now, as then, what makes all of this possible is the corporate world’s accelerating consolidation into a class of post-human trans-national meta-beings accountable only to each other and totally incapable of interfacing with humanity in any terms beyond the consideration of profit. The blooming of dystopia continues apace.