April 14, 2023 | OPINION | By AJ Fabbri
You’ve probably heard of Snapchat, Tesla, or Epic Games but, behind all of these, a major stakeholder in over 100 corporations would rather stay in the shadows, quietly manipulating the world from behind the scenes. This company is a China-based tech giant that dominates the global gaming, communications, and media markets, obediently giving the Chinese Communist Party God-like powers to enforce its will at home and abroad.
The CCP exploits the company’s countless games and apps such as WeChat, Fortnite, and Clap for President Xi Jinping, to spy on, censor, and manipulate over a billion users. The company in question is Tencent. As China’s approach to foreign affairs becomes increasingly aggressive, so too does its censorship through Tencent.
An incident stemming from a 2019 interview highlighted the control over foreign discourse that the company’s holdings allow the CCP. In the interview, Ng Wai Chung, a professional player of the Blizzard-developed video game Hearthstone, expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Blizzard quickly made an example of Chung, banning him from competing professionally for a year for acting in a way that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages the Blizzard image”.
To be fair, Chung’s comments certainly did offend a portion of the public: the Chinese government.
Blizzard had found themselves caught in a CCP-induced catch-22: They could either do nothing and suffer backlash from China, or they could punish Chung and suffer backlash from the United States. Ultimately, Blizzard took the latter option and, among the backlash, many of their American audience members pointed out that Tencent, which owns a 5% stake in Blizzard and has partnered with the company to distribute its games in China, probably influenced Blizzard’s decision.
Despite this attempt at CCP damage control, Blizzard still suffered backlash from China. Tencent removed references to the company on WeChat, suspended live broadcasts of Blizzard’s games, and offered refunds to users who had bought Blizzard games through Tencent’s platforms. The controversy also hit Blizzard’s stock price, causing a 4% drop that exemplified how rational, profit-maximizing firms should do everything in their power to avoid angering the CCP.
The Chinese government’s influence over foreign markets and discourse is alarmingly powerful. If this was the consequence of one of Blizzard’s stars indirectly speaking out against the CCP, imagine how much control the Party has over Snapchat, Tesla, and Epic Games – all companies of which Tencent owns more than five percent.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, another video game popular in the American market, kickstarted the explosion in popularity of the gaming industry’s battle royale genre, which led to the rise of Epic Games’ Fortnite. Tencent, which develops and distributes PUBG in China, faced pressure from the CCP to make some major changes to the game. Because of the Party’s totalitarian control scheme, any request from the CCP is essentially a thinly veiled order. In this case, they just wanted to make a few small changes to PUBG.
Just kidding. Recently, Tencent completely overhauled the game, renaming it “Game for Peace,” inserting CCP slogans and symbolism, and removing most violence from a game that had revolved around fighting other players to the death to become the last one standing.
The company’s total allegiance to the whims of the Chinese government hardly stops with some video games. Imagine iMessage, your credit card, the news, Instagram, Uber, DoorDash, Amazon, Tinder – you get the picture – all within one app. That’s Tencent’s WeChat, China’s primary app for messaging and everything else. Even if the app lacks certain native functionality, its “Mini Programs” feature allows users to open any desired app within WeChat, entirely bypassing app stores. There is effectively no need for Chinese users to have any other apps on their phones.
According to Chinese law, WeChat must hand over all requested information to the government. It provides the CCP with a stream of nearly everything to know about users’ personal lives at their request, from communications to location information to biometric data. This makes it extremely easy to employ mass censorship and direct agents to arrest people for what the Party believes to be unsavory activity.
The Party is not only able to see what goes on with WeChat inside of China; it provides the same surveillance capabilities anywhere. Many Chinese expatriates who use WeChat to communicate with friends in family in China face the constant threat of coercion and retaliation from the CCP.
Allowing one app to dominate all aspects of citizens’ digital lives seems like a gross oversight on the part of the Chinese government. Giving one app, created by one company, this much power is clearly monopolistic and generally harmful to consumers. The CCP recognized this; yet they allowed it to happen. That’s because WeChat is more than just a super app; more so than all Tencent’s other investments, it’s China’s single most powerful mass surveillance and propaganda tool.
The Party’s control over foreign discourse is far from ideal; unfortunately, the most likely path seems to be that this control will only increase. The only way to stop it would be through government regulation. That, however, is quite unlikely lest our country foregoes a small fraction of our relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar.