Clash of the Titans: Chinese State Media vs. United Airlines

Why does this make me think of the Iran-Iraq war?


This is now more than a week old, but in case anyone has missed it I wanted to take note.

I bow to no one in my devotion to the works of the Chinese state media. And I bow to very few in my accumulation of miles on United Airlines over the decades, with resulting expertise in its corporate culture and the pre-flight-video stylings of its CEO, Jeff Smisek.

I had intended to give both themes a well-deserved rest. But they have come together in an irresistibly delicious combination. 

Over the past few months, the (state-run) People's Daily in China has launched a lovely series called "Dishonest Americans."  Supposedly this is meant to give Chinese readers a more balanced and "objective" picture of American life, when juxtaposed with their own overly rosy impressions. Or so the PD editor has claimed: "Most Chinese people think that Americans are honest, reliable, and righteous. However, once you live in that country for a while, you may discover the descriptions above are a bit misleading."

For me the irresistibly delicious part was the recent Those Dishonest Yanks item about a bad experience a Chinese family had had with United Airlines. And the People's Daily conclusion was that the family had endured huffy and put-upon-seeming treatment from a United rep  ... because they were Chinese!  

Yes, I am sure all members of the U.S. traveling public will agree that this is the only possible explanation for passengers having a less-than blissful experience on America's largest airline. 

Humiliation.jpgYou can read the whole account here. If you need to crank out a "China and the world" seminar paper this weekend, I recommend these extra-credit points:
  • The "disrespect and humiliation" angle. As I've argued many times, in a country as huge, shambling, and diverse as China, flat-out nationalistic tension is rarely the first thing on people's minds. Before someone responds as "a Chinese," he or she is likely to react as "a person from Sichuan," or as "a member of the Wang family," or as "a school classmate of Mr. Chen," or as "your friend," or as "someone who sees a chance of profit," or any other natural sub-unit of a billion people. But the ever-present apprehension about "disrespect" from the outside world, especially the mighty and mainly white North American/European world, always has the potential to evoke a purely nationalistic/tribal response. Bonus reading on this point: Never Forget National Humiliation, which always seemed as if it should have an exclamation point at the end of the title. 

    Thus I am fascinated that this is exactly the context in which the United problem is presented: as a matter of "insulting" and "bullying" the Chinese travelers. The next time I have an airline-hell experience, I will have to protest about being "bullied" and "humiliated."

  • The "hey, wait a minute" angle. The growth of the Chinese economy is of course now supporting a surge of outbound Chinese tourism, which I view as beneficial for just about everyone involved. (Good for foreign economies; good for the Chinese to see more of the world first-hand.) But it also means that China is encountering its version of the "Ugly American" backlash that U.S. tourists and expats started experiencing long ago. Early this month, a prominent politician, Wang Yang, warned his fellow citizens that their boorish behavior overseas was hurting the whole country's image. A few days later, a huge uproar began in Egypt about a Chinese teenager who etched his name and "I was here!" in Chinese characters on an ancient temple at Luxor. It is coincidence that the Chinese media are portraying Chinese travelers as pushed-around innocents at the moment when the contrary impression is growing. (And, for the billionth time, among such a big and varied populace, there are plenty examples for any impression you'd like to find.) But the coincidence is interesting.

  • Truth squads and the netizens: The most significant part of the whole episode may be the backlash from much of the online Chinese populace, examining why the state media are making this case just now and whether national stereotypes about dishonesty make sense at all. Here are English-language summaries in Global Post, the NYT and China Digital Times.

That is all. Now if only the family had tried to sneak a boiled frog, or a leafblower, or an open bottle of beer, or an Atlantic subscription card (etc)  onto the flight, it would be the ideal item I have been hoping for lo these many years. Thanks to Adam Minter, Damien Ma, Ben Carlson, and many other friends in and around China for the leads.