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In a message sent to more than 700 employees, the co-CEO of Germany-based e-sports company ESL has told employees not to discuss Hong Kong amid ongoing protests in the city.

“All of you might have heard [about] the political discussions and strikes surrounding the situation in Hong Kong, China,” wrote ESL co-CEO and co-founder Ralf Reichert, according to an October 9 Slack message viewed by HKFP. “As a global company being active in many countries around the globe, we naturally do abstain from political discussions and setting the best example by living our values.”

Ralf Reichert
ESL co-CEO Ralf Reichert. File photo: Seb Daly/Web Summit via Sportsfile, via Flickr.

“Therefore, we would like to suggest to not actively engage in the discussion, especially on social media,” wrote Reichert.

Founded in 2000, ESL is the world’s largest e-sports company. It organises video game competitions and was most recently valued at US$425 million (HK$3.33 billion).

In September, ESL announced that it was forming a partnership with Huya, a Chinese streaming service backed by Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent. Huya pledged to buy US$30 million (HK$235 million) in ESL shares. The partnership was expected to expand ESL’s access to China’s huge competitive gaming market.

ESL studio
ESL studio in 2014. Photo: Artubr, via Flickr.

When asked by HKFP if it was concerned about its China market, and whether it respected free speech, a spokesperson said ESL maintains social media policies for staff.

“Mr. Reichert’s internal message on Slack was a reminder to ESL employees about the general social media policies that have been in place for many years; that we do not use ESL’s brand or platform for personal political statements, and to show respect for colleagues with views different than our own,” the spokesperson said via email. “ESL’s team members are of course free to harbor personal views on private social media accounts.”

NBA row

Reichert’s directive comes after a week of fierce controversy surrounding a now-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. Morey deleted the tweet and apologised after Chinese netizens and state media reacted angrily to what they perceived as support for separatism. Chinese businesses stopped selling Houston Rockets merchandise, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced it would not air upcoming NBA pre-season games in China.

But Morey’s apology deeply rankled many Americans, who viewed it as capitulation to an authoritarian communist government.

The incident brought into sharp relief the contradiction between the democratic value of free speech, and the desire of western companies to appease Chinese consumers and the ruling Communist Party. Beijing has increasingly demanded that international companies censor speech that goes against party red lines, threatening to deny market access to those who do not obey. Companies from the Marriott hotelier to clothing retailer Zara to American Airlines have fallen in line.

august 31 china extradition
Photo: May James/HKFP.

In his message to staff, Reichert included links to articles about Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong, his apology, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s subsequent statement in support of free expression.

Large-scale protests in Hong Kong against a bill that would have enabled extraditions to China have evolved into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment, democracy and alleged police brutality. The bill will be withdrawn next week, but demonstrations are continuing into their 19th week.

Controversies over speech in relation to Hong Kong have already affected the gaming industry. This week, US video game from Blizzard Entertainment banned a Hong Kong player for speaking in support of the protests. The ban has sparked anger and calls for boycotts of Blizzard on social media.

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She previously worked as a reporter for Foreign Policy magazine and a national security reporter for The Daily Beast.