“He said, more or less, ‘I’m being selected because I’m Chinese,’” fellow passenger Tyler Bridges was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.
That quote, translated into Chinese, was widely circulated on social media here. (Another witness on the plane said the man was originally from Vietnam, according to the BBC.)
By late afternoon on Tuesday, the topic had attracted 160 million readers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and 97,000 comments. Petitions to boycott United Airlines were also going viral on WeChat, a popular messaging service.
“United Airlines just randomly chose an Asian? It’s blatant racial discrimination,” a user called @Rhando_hiclarie wrote in a post. “UA is super rubbish.”
The airline first offered compensation to passengers who volunteered to give up their seats, but no one came forward. Passengers were then reportedly told by a manager that a computer would select four people to get off.
Later, however, Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman, would not say whether the bumped passengers were chosen by a computer, an employee, or some combination of the two, according to the New York Times.
Some users pointed out the irony of United’s motto: “Fly the friendly skies,” but many saw the incident as an example of American hypocrisy, and what one user called “a perfect illustration” of human rights in the United States.
“I am going to tell you a joke: ‘America is the country with the best human rights in the World,’” one user called @Youthliteratureandart wrote in a post that attracted more than 4,000 likes.
“Americans often say they have democracy and human rights, but they can’t even respect people who have different skin colors,” @Nanchigirl wrote.
“Americans are so barbarous,” @_tua wrote. “Overbooking is the airline company’s own problem. This passenger didn’t break the law. The security guy beat him until his face is covered in blood, is this the so-called American democratic society?”
Chinese media drew attention to an online petition entitled #ChineseLivesMatter calling for a federal investigation into the incident, while public figures also joined in the chorus of complaints.
“Reflecting on my three nightmare-like experiences with United, I can say with responsibility that United is the worst airline, not one of the worst,” Richard Liu, the CEO of popular online shopping platform JD.COM posted on weibo.
Chinese-born comedian Joe Wong urged his followers to join the boycott of United.
“Many Chinese people feel they’ve been subject to discrimination, but face prevents them from speaking out, which leads to mainstream media in the West and the public not taking discrimination against Asians seriously,” he said.
Others made similar points.
“Why don’t you randomly choose a black person?” another user asked in a post that attracted 1,294 likes, implying an Asian was an easier target for racial discrimination than an African American.
The calls for a boycott in China could have a real impact on the company’s bottom line, with shares of United Airlines parent United Continental Holdings Inc. falling in early trade Tuesday.
United has often billed itself as the top American carrier to China, operating more nonstop U.S.-China flights, and to more cities in China, than any other airline. It offers direct flights from various American cities to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong, adding Hangzhou and a seasonal flight to Xian in 2016. The company got about 14 percent of its 2016 revenue from flying Pacific routes.
Jin Xin, Luna Lin and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.