At around 7 P.M. on April 9th, at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, a police officer who had been summoned to a United Airlines flight heading to Louisville, Kentucky, wrenched an elderly man from his seat and dragged him down the aisle for the crime of refusing to give up the spot he’d paid for. The passenger, who was bleeding, suffered, according to his lawyer, a broken nose, a concussion, and two knocked-out teeth. Other passengers filmed the violent encounter, and their videos quickly went viral around the world.
Unsurprisingly, outrage convulsed social media, fanned by the United C.E.O. Oscar Munoz’s inexplicable victim-blaming letter to employees. (His first apology went over poorly, so he tried again, and again, in the days that followed.) In the age of camera phones and Instagram, text can often take a backseat to the visual clarity of videos, images, and memes. Plenty of each circulated online, depicting a man with his glasses knocked askance, his mouth streaked with blood. The man was later identified as a sixty-nine-year-old Asian-American doctor named David Dao. But, in a way, the image began spinning its own narrative as soon as it was released into the public.
In the days since President Trump announced his travel ban, which is rooted in anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric, the experience of flying has been increasingly freighted with fear. People of color are attuned, once again, to the sense that their status in this country has a probationary quality. The hostility is not reserved for Muslim-Americans exclusively. The Black Lives Matter movement arose, in a proximate sense, against the backdrop of targeted police brutality. Violent hate crimes toward Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans, groups historically considered to be meek to the point of invisibility, have spiked in the past year, according to the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice. And it’s not a stretch to think it has something to do with Trump’s portrayal of China as an incorrigible enemy bent on “raping” the U.S.
Indignity over Trump’s irresponsibly belligerent rhetoric has informed the swift and vocal backlash against United in the Chinese community both here and in China. It took less than forty-eight hours for the hashtag “#UnitedAirlinesBeatingEvent” to top the trend chart on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. On the site, the subject has attracted more than a billion views, almost four hundred thousand comments, and memes of helmet-wearing passengers beneath which bloggers have written, “P.S.A.: Getting on the plane in the U.S. if you are Chinese is worse than going to war.”
Chinese celebrities have called on their countrymen to boycott United, which has about twenty per cent of U.S.-China airline traffic and has a partnership with Air China, the third-largest Chinese airline. Since the incident, United’s stock has fallen two per cent, losing four hundred and fifty million dollars in value. “If this is how they torture China,” a Weibo user, who said he was a college student from Chengdu, said, “we must retaliate in kind!”
The humiliating brutality inflicted upon Dao is absurd, savage, and disturbing, but the speed at which it has acquired the force of a geopolitical parable about the Sino-American relationship should give one pause. The Chinese state media has vociferously condemned United Airlines as “arrogant and cold-blooded.” And yet its unremitting coverage of the debacle on prime-time TV seems designed to suggest that this is a story not about what one should expect from an airline but about what one should not expect from China: You Americans think you are so respectful of human rights—but this is how you treat Chinese people?
James Palmer writes in Foreign Policy that, for a while now, “the Chinese internet has been wracked by civil war over America,” with one side celebrating the United States as a free, unpolluted paradise and the other railing against its hypocrisy, racial inequality, and political strife. Palmer offers this diagnosis: “the real subject under discussion is often the Chinese government” and how it stacks up against the United States. Scandals in the West, especially when the victim is Chinese, have become potent ammunition.
The sentiment prevails whether the issue at hand is a delayed IKEA recall in China (the hive mind of the Chinese Internet wondered whether the company values its Chinese customers less than its American counterparts) or the shooting of a fifty-six-year-old Chinese father of five in Paris. The appropriation of one context-specific story for a larger sociocultural narrative is certainly not unique, but it speaks to the current atmosphere, which is one of profound agitation. When the anxiety is fixated on a single incident, like sunlight concentrated through a magnifying glass, it can all too easily distort reality and obscure its complexities. The politics of representation matter all the more in an age of censorship (in China) and a curated media landscape (everywhere where there’s an Internet connection), because symbols so effortlessly accrue their own significance.
Dao’s lawyer said that his client had received an e-mail comparing him to Rosa Parks, a parallel that is questionable, to say the least, for a host of reasons, beginning with the distinction between Parks’s conscious activism and Dao’s accidental victimhood. United’s callousness was not a calculated attempt to wage war on China and wipe out some of its own value in the process. Then again, last October, I wrote about the anti-Asian racism of Fox News’ “Watters’ World,” in which its crass, witless host, Jesse Watters, visited Chinatown for no other discernible reason than to mock its immigrant inhabitants. The most wretched part of an altogether calamitous five-minute segment was when Watters harangued an elderly Chinese woman who clearly spoke little English but was too timid or polite to walk away from an aggressive white man yelling about “Trump beating up on China.”
Our President has made no secret of seeing the world as a cartoonish dichotomy between winners and losers, the strong and the weak, real and fraudulent Americans. His rhetoric, abetted by his counterparts elsewhere in the world who have their own agendas to push, is infectious because, in a time of uncertainty, the reductive narrative can seem more readily palatable than the confusing truth. The most corrosive part of such simplification isn’t only that the weak will continue to be bullied. Rather, it’s that we bystanders—caught up as we are in this psychosocial climate of fear and anxiety—will lose the objectivity to even want to understand the nuances of any single event. Instead, on the panopticon of our hand-held digital theatre, we will see the world the way our devices would like us to see everything: filtered.