LOS ANGELES: Chinese Internet users are calling for a boycott of United Airlines after videos showing a passenger appearing to be Asian being forcibly removed from its plane went viral on social media platforms across China.
Posts from official media accounts and from private citizens were quickly seen trending on platforms including Sina Weibo (akin to a Chinese version of Twitter) and on messaging platform WeChat, which has over 800 million users worldwide.
An Apr 9 flight from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville was overbooked and after a call for volunteers to leave the plane, the airline and local police forcibly removed a 69-year-old passenger. Videos show the man, claiming to be a medical doctor, removed from his seat and dragged, bloodied along the aisle.
Smartphone videos posted online showed three Chicago Department of Aviation police officers struggling with a seated middle-aged man.
He starts to scream as he is dragged off while other passengers look on - some recording the event with their phones. One passenger can be heard yelling, "Oh my God, look at what you did to him!"
Many Chinese netizens pointed not only to United's ill-treatment of the passenger, but also charged the airline with racist treatment of Asians. Others said that the police and airline brutality exposed American lies about freedom and equality. The video surfaced the same day as Amnesty International criticised China for its high number of state executions.
A topic page on Sina Weibo had attracted more than 77 million views and 5.2 million discussion threads by early Tuesday afternoon. Official media, including People's Daily, and the Sina video channel have also been carrying the news. Shenzhen Airlines set up an online poll of Weibo users' seeking their views on the incident.
Many Weibo users said it was insulting and disrespectful, arguing that United Airlines deliberately targeted an Asian man because Asians are stereotyped as timid and unlikely to stand up for their rights.
Gao Dinyuan, a member of the Binzhou City Internet Culture Association, wrote in a Weibo post: "Where's the freedom and equality that (America) promised? Where's promise of the acceptance of people in different colours? Are these just political lies from American politicians?"
One of the WeChat posts by MetroChinese drew more than 100,000 views. Many users responded by calling for boycott of United Airlines. "What if all Asians boycott United Airlines? Will that airline collapse?," one of the users wrote.
"There is a long history of discrimination against Asians. I hope Chinese people realise this reality and support domestic products," another user opined. "Don't feed those who look down on us!"
"United began nonstop service to China in 1986 and today has twice as many routes between China and the mainland US as any other US airline, with 96 weekly departures," the airline claimed in May last year, before adding a new service connecting the high-tech hubs of San Francisco and Hangzhou.
The company did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment, but its CEO Oscar Munoz apologised for "having to re-accomodate" customers such as the Asian man, who was being contacted directly to resolve the situation.
"Asian American or not, as a consumer who paid for his ticket, he was treated like a prisoner," one Weibo commenter said. "Things are better here at home."
US airlines are allowed to involuntarily bump passengers off overbooked flights, with compensation, if enough volunteers cannot be found, according to the Department of Transportation.