The brutal treatment of an Asian-American doctor has reminded Chinese of everything they hate about the United States.
- By James PalmerJames Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy, which he joined in the winter of 2016. He was born in Manchester, U.K., and educated at Cambridge, before moving to Korea in 2002 and then China in 2003. He won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 2003, for his work on South Korea. He has written two books — The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes — and is working on a third.
The video of David Dao being dragged kicking and screaming off a United Airlines flight by Chicago police set the American internet aflame Monday. That’s not a surprise: Whether you blame the greed of American airlines or late capitalism, the video struck an obvious chord. But less predictable was how massively the news took off in China. Within a few hours, it was all over both Weibo and WeChat, the two most popular social media services in China. The video racked up more than 330 million views — many times the number of Chinese who have ever flown domestically in the United States — and hundreds of thousands of angry comments.
Why the passion? The obvious starting point is race. Dao, a Chinese-Vietnamese doctor from Kentucky, reportedly shouted, “I’m being selected because I’m Chinese.” For a public that assumes anything bad that happens to a Chinese person overseas is because of racism, this was a lit match on a pile of kindling. The online mood had already been stirred up by the French police killing of a Chinese man a few weeks ago, widely blamed on anti-Asian racism.
In both cases, the assumption may be right. In the United case, while the passengers were allegedly chosen at random, Asian passengers have reported perceived discrimination from United in the past. Certainly, his status as an elderly doctor might have carried more credibility had he been white, and the escalation to force avoided.
There’s an unpleasant subtext to some of the accusations of racism, though. The immigrant Chinese community in the United States tends to blame its problems not on the white power structure but on the supposed favoritism shown to blacks. (Chinese born in the United States, in contrast, tend to be far more aware of the country’s unique issues with blackness: Black Lives Matter caused a striking generational split in some families.) That attitude has spread to much of the Chinese public back home.
There’s strong resentment among older Chinese in America that affirmative action costs their children college places. In China, meanwhile, that’s mixed with a contempt for Africans, and African-Americans, for what’s assumed to be their self-inflicted poverty and cultural backwardness. It’s not that a racial hierarchy is wrong, in this worldview, but that the Chinese should be recognized as at least equal to whites within it. The notion goes back to the late 19th-century reformer and utopian philosopher Kang Youwei, who called for the “white and yellow races” to come together to dominate and exterminate the black and brown.
In the United case, this has manifested in the popular comment on Chinese social media that “They would never have done this to a black person!” The logic here goes like this: Americans are sensitive about racism — but only against blacks, not against the (more deserving) Chinese. American security forces would thus never dare to beat up innocent black people, only the hapless Chinese. (The answer to the obvious question is that in all those videos where American police kill black people, they deserved it.)
But race isn’t the only reason for the video’s massive spread. For the last decade, the Chinese internet has been wracked by civil war over America, with one side increasingly aided by the heavy artillery of censorship. To listen to one side, the United States is the home of all things good: freedom, clean air, a welfare state (Europeans may boggle a little bit at this thought, but in comparison with China, the United States is a paragon of Scandinavian generosity to its needy), and pornography on tap.
To listen to the other, the United States is hypocritical, torn by racial and political strife, crime-ridden, and, on top of all that, far too expensive. In both cases, the real subject under discussion is often the Chinese government and how inferior or superior it is to the U.S. system. After reading a few thousand of these comments, I am always inclined to proclaim the virtues of, say, Belgium.
It’s against this backdrop that the video took on its ideological power. The arbitrary use of force is common in China, particularly in the countryside and among the poor. The police themselves are rarely the main instigators; instead, the brunt of everyday thuggery is done by the chengguan — urban militia tasked with cleaning up the streets, whose job regularly brings them into conflict with small traders and stall owners. In this recent video, for instance, a chengguan is casually smashing up people’s property.
Apart from the chengguan, private security forces, or bao’an, do their share of thuggery. Videos showing uniformed brutes kicking some poor peddler’s teeth in regularly flare online — inevitably accompanied by comments that this wouldn’t happen in the United States.
For the anti-Americans, therefore, the United video was a gift. See, they proclaimed gleefully, America isn’t the great home of democracy and human rights! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Washington fans! Imagine the delight of Democrats when a Republican politician is caught soliciting sex acts in a public bathroom; the smug delight in the other side’s hypocrisy exposed.
This might all seem inconsequential squabbling, but it’s taken very seriously by the Chinese Communist Party. Belief in the American way — however naïve — is one of the only remaining forces that can unite large swaths of Chinese across the nation against the party line. The authorities can crush churches, block environmental groups, and imprison lawyers, but they can’t end the cultural hold of America over the mind of a huge number of Chinese.
Thus, the two narratives around the United video come together neatly to serve the authorities’ ends. Not only is America hypocritical and violent, but it will never treat Chinese with the respect they deserve. Hence the video will, inevitably, be backed up by newspaper editorials proclaiming this line until the whole affair is forgotten by the weekend after next — but leaving, thankfully for the government, another trace of animus in the recesses of the public mind.
Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images