BEIJING — Millions of Chinese people have expressed their anger on social media over reports that an Asian-American man was dragged off a United Airlines plane — with many calling it racism, and some even demanding a boycott of the airline.
Pictures and videos of the man with blood pouring from his mouth were shared on the microblog service Weibo, causing particular outrage after an eyewitness report that the man said he was targeted by United Airlines because he was Chinese. Americans were quick to slam the airline for mistreating a passenger — but in China, where patriotic consumers and state media are highly sensitive to any signal that foreign companies are unfairly taking advantage of Chinese consumers, the incident took on a different color.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Chinese hashtag “United Airlines forces passenger off a plane” was the top trending tag on microblog service Weibo, with 169 million views and hundreds of thousands of posts.
Many social media users in China saw the incident as racial discrimination against an Asian man. Joe Wong, a well-known Chinese American comedian, was one of them.
“Many people of Chinese heritage feel that they’ve been discriminated against, but they don’t say anything because they’re worried about losing face,” he wrote on his microblog in a post that was shared and liked thousands of times. “It leads the mainstream Western media and public to treat discrimination against Asians as if it’s not serious.”
“United Airlines operates in China, let them hear your voice!” he urged his followers in another post.
Another widely followed user called Shen Chongchong, an online video producer, asked followers to sign a petition for the White House to investigate the incident.
Consumer boycotts are no laughing matter for foreign companies in China, a massive and increasingly wealthy market. Consumers are quick to turn against foreign brands perceived as mistreating Chinese consumers, as well as brands from any country seen as opposing China.
Most recently, South Korean retail giant Lotte Group faced a boycott from Chinese consumers and companies after it said it would provide land for an American missile defense system in South Korea that China has vocally opposed.
In 2012, a wave of anti-Japan protests over islands both countries claim took a heavy toll on Japanese carmakers and other brands, and other boycotts, often prompted by state media reports, have hit companies from Apple to KFC.
“Boycotts are certainly a concern for foreign companies,” said Jake Parker, vice president of China operations at the US–China Business Council.
Access to the Chinese market is important to United, which says it runs more nonstop flights to Chinese cities than any other US airline, including routes from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an, and Hangzhou to all over the US. The airline also has a code-sharing deal with Air China on certain routes.
“It’s clear that Chinese partners like Air China will say to them, ‘What’s going on, this is unacceptable,’ and will want them to make it clear that it’s not a racist statement against the Chinese,” said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group, who said he regularly works with multinational companies concerned about attacks from the Chinese government and consumers.
Rein added, however, that there are relatively few options for air travel between China and the US, so the airline may not face much impact from cost-conscious consumers in the end.
China, whose flights carried more than 436 million passengers in 2015 according to the World Bank, is growing more quickly than any other major air travel market in the world.
“The situation absolutely could and should have been dealt with better,” said James Pearson, faculty director of Basair Aviation College. “The after-effect of this incident has predictably been huge, and the CEO should have acted compassionately and quickly.”