The video of hired muscle dragging a terrified Chinese American guy off a United Airlines jetliner in Chicago has raised quite a stir but America being America it'll be down the Memory Hole in a day or two - at least in the United States. Foreign Policy's James Palmer writes that for the Boys from Beijing, the video and the racist overtones it carries are manna from Heaven.
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.
The United video with its racist overtones also plays directly into China's powerful and lasting "Century of Humiliation" meme. Relatively obscure to most Westerners, the Century of Humiliation is deeply embedded in China's rulers, particularly its military caste. Or, if pdf reports aren't your thing, you can watch a short, two-part documentary on the subject here and here.
In America, the United Airlines incident may just be another bit of sensational controversy with the lifespan of a fruit fly. In China it may leave scars.