Remember the Asian man who was dragged out of the United Airlines plane because he refused to “volunteer” for a later flight? The reason why everyone hates United Airlines now? Yes, him. Dr. David Dao.
Well, the same day the incident happened (April 11, 2017), someone filed a #ChineseLivesMatter petition with the United States government! The grammatically incorrect, spelling-mistake laden petition requests a federal investigation of the United Airlines injustice, claiming the incident had occurred due to racial discrimination. The petition went viral on social media and received over 100,000 signatures in the first twenty four hours (meeting the minimum quota) and now has over 210,000 signatures in total. Good job, right?
Here’s the thing though, David Dao is not Chinese or Chinese-American. He’s Vietnamese American (immigrated from Vietnam).
So why did the author, Z.Z create an erroneous petition that stomps on the original hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (protesting the deaths of black Americans), cried wolf to the Chinese (social media) public, and require the federal government to investigate under false pretenses?
Well, it was a mistake.
“Because I’m Chinese”
Early news reports had quoted a fellow passenger stating he had heard Dao attribute his selection to racial profiling.
Comedian Joe Wong was one of the first people to publicly chime in on the anti-Asian sentiment:
“A lot of Asian Americans, when they face injustices, they’re very reluctant to ask, is this because I’m Asian, just because they feel embarrassed or they feel that they don’t want to own this identity,”
David Dao definitely didn’t have any qualms about standing his ground, but what effect did this incident have on China?
Chinese rallied together and spread the news on Weibo and Wechat, spreading word of Zhang’s petition, demanding netizens to boycott United Airlines, and hate on the company. Which they did. The Shanghaiist shows Chinese netizens cutting up their United mileage cards, and other media outlets show them burning their United flight tickets.
In another The Shanghaiist article, Chinese netizen comments are translated for us:
“This was not random, but racial discrimination. All Asian brothers should boycott this fucking company.”
“They chose an Asian because they thought he would be meek and not stand up for his rights. We should show United how wrong they are!”
Here, the theory is that a Chinese (or Asian) passenger would be more likely to acquiesce and agree to voluntarily leave the flight. Whether this is based on the submissive nature stereotypical of Asians, or Asian pragmatism and preference for money (passengers were compensated four hundred dollars, meals, and a hotel stay) is debatable.
The Sacramento Bee reported Asians had taken a stand after being targeted in crime, mostly because of their habit of carrying cash and not reporting the crimes:
“At least 300 to 400 Chinese immigrants in Sacramento have been victimized over the past few months, but many are reluctant to call police because of language and cultural issues…”
This is inline with last year’s NYPD hate crime forum, where Asian Americans stated:
“Asian Americans feel like it’s the other way around [that] a different standard is applied to the Asian community, where we have to almost work twice as hard to prove it’s a hate crime.”
The Teenage Political Activist
The eighteen-year-old Chinese student, Zhishi Zhang, felt outrage and created the petition for the benefit of his people. Or so he claims.
It’s hard to critique an eighteen year old for his rash political activism, especially in today’s climate when every teenager’s dress code violation is deemed a worthy cause to “stand up for”, but Zhang isn’t some Chinese international student studying in the US, voicing his surprise and outrage against perceived racism against his “people”. No, Zhang is a Chinese student living and studying in the U.K.
So it’s no wonder that Zhang has trouble listing any other instance of racial or ethnic discrimination in America. No really, his answer was:
“…so many Chinese people signed it which means that they must share the feeling which is probably a result of experiencing stereotype or racism,”
Zhang assumes that his petition was popular among Chinese because they could relate to being discriminated in America. What does Zhang think discrimination looks like in States?
“When the U.S. got Chinese immigrants to work in gold mines and on the First Transcontinental Railroad, they were not exactly enslaved, but were still treated as subhuman. Some died of exhaustion due to horrendous working conditions and explosions. Then there were the internment camps for Japanese prisoners during the Second World War. There are many cases when Asians have been killed or violently attacked, and the community has been left feeling they have not received justice.”
Zhang then proceeds to reference a campaign against the “model minority myth” in a recent SixthTone interview, which is not relevant to his cause. That Zhang couldn’t list a single recent example of racism, such as the attacks on Chinese international students near University of California or reveals Zhang’s ignorance of the Asian American plight.
By calling the Chinese railroad worker or miner’s experience “subhuman” (thus comparing the Chinese immigrant experience to African American slavery experience), Zhang discounts important events that could support his argument, such as Los Angeles’ Chinese Massacre of 1971, one of the largest lynchings in US history.
Ambition over Activism
Zhishi Zhang can claim to have merely jumped the gun in rehashing #BlackLivesMatter to #ChineseLivesMatter, but he cannot stop gloating about his accomplishments.
Why of course not! He’s only eighteen, and in the four years he’s lived in the UK he’s already managed to complete three government internships (“House of Commons work placements”), appear on TV questioning former Prime Minister David Cameron, pen two government petitions, and engage in interviews with BBC and multiple other major media outlets.
Wait, did you say another petition? Zhang received “quite a lot of media attention”, even landing a BBC interview, with his U.K. Petition on the underrepresentation of female philosophers in the national school curriculum.
Whoa, ambitious aren’t we? Who’s to say Zhang didn’t just see the news, recognized an opportunity for the spotlight, and jumped on it before even having time to proofread his petition:
“Some friends pointed out that the petition had quite a few grammar and spelling mistakes, and also that the hashtag in it could trigger different interpretations and misapprehensions. I didn’t overthink it, and in my indignation just submitted it as soon as I had finished writing. I couldn’t make any edits after it was published. I saw something unfair and thought I should do something about it.”
It sounds like Zhang created the petition to add another achievement to his resume, and a few more interviews for his college application. He even said:
The Damage done
Where Zhang claims to have started the petition to defend Chinese rights, which is what effectively followed in the violent social media storm that ensued as Chinese began boycotting the airline in a show of purchasing power, he revealed his lofty aspirations in an interview with Mic:
“I wish to make this into a New, Positive social movement which benefits everyone and encourage greater social integration. […] I also [want] to show that Chinese people also know how to protect our rights by democratic means such as petitions [and] getting involved in politics.”
Contract Zhang’s rosy message with what Joe Wong had written on his Weibo:
“Many Chinese who have faced discrimination are unwilling to speak out because of their pride. Because of this attitude, neither mainstream Western media nor the public pays much attention to discrimination against Asians.”
The difference? Joe Wong has a honest that clearly identifies the weakness of Chinese culture that necessitates a call to action: share your experiences! For not only does Western media not know of America’s discrimination against Chinese, but the motherland doesn’t know of it either.
The flip side to encouraging Chinese Americans, Chinese, and Asians in general to “find their voice” in politics and media is the weakening of America’s over-glorified image in the East. As Wong warns of the implications of this scandal:
“A lot of Chinese people [in China] never saw videos of police shooting black people, even from the back. They didn’t see those videos. But they saw this one. And now they were like, ‘What? This is what America is like.’ Their idea of America is just shattered to some extent.”
So doesn’t this mean Zhang has enlightened the Chinese on America’s racial tensions? Isn’t this a good thing for republicans and everyone but the tourism industry?
No, it isn’t. Zhang blew a whistle prematurely and alarmed his fellow countrymen for little reason. Yes, United Airlines mistreated a human being and were horrid at cleaning up their mess, and yes, Asians could boycott United Airlines for selecting an Asian man on a fight with, let’s face it, very few Asian men. But, does this scandal warrant a #ChineseLivesMatter hashtag? Absolutely not.
Zhang cried wolf with his petition, making a joke out of a serious federal investigative platform. He has undermined ethnic profiling of Chinese Americans, especially enmity caused by China’s rise. He’s discarded new tensions that have arisen with the new presidency.
Finally, he has discredited the media in the eyes of Chinese netizens, who are now upset with Dr. Dao’s rumored one hundred and forty million dollar settlement. Can’t blame them when their anger and efforts for a man who isn’t even of Chinese heritage ends up settling the case within two months.
To Zhishi Zhang, the overzealous, over ambitious Chinese international student who likely comes from a background of wealth and entitlement: Did you know that news reports of hate crimes against Chinese are numerous in the U.K.? A recent article on Politico described the Asian American, specifically Chinese American way the best:
“A lot of these people don’t realize that there are a lot of crimes committed against Asians,” says Karlin Chan, formerly of the Chinese Action Network. “You have to take care of your own house before you can go outside.”
There’s another saying that fits: mind your own business.