What you need to know
An 18-year-old says treatment of United Airlines passenger speaks to wider prejudice against East Asians.
Be it for the Trump supporter, the anti-fascist activist, or the pro-Brexit crusader, the internet is frequently a battleground of polarized discourse. China is no exception, with outrage regularly erupting online over matters ranging from a talent show’s exclusion of Taiwan on a map of China to the poolside hazing of a bridesmaid at a celebrity wedding.
But when Zhang Zishi turned in anger to the internet last month after a middle-aged Asian-American passenger was violently removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight, he had more pragmatic objectives. One day after the April 9 incident, the 18-year-old, who lives and studies in the United Kingdom, filed a petition to whitehouse.gov calling for the federal government to investigate the incident. He signed off the appeal with the hashtag #ChineseLivesMatters.
Within two days, Zhang’s petition had gained over 200,000 signatures, only for the victim, David Dao, to be identified as Vietnamese-American. The oversight — a result of reports that quoted a witness saying Dao had protested that he was being targeted due to his Chinese ethnicity — became one of several points of criticism, including Zhang’s rehashing of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan for an incident that is arguably worlds away from the killings of black Americans at the hands of police.
Zhang maintains that he doesn’t want to make his campaign into a “competition” about whose suffering is worse. There is historical context to the mistreatment of East Asians in the West, he says — suffering that continues to this day, along with the perpetuation of the “model minority” myth that stereotypes Asian-Americans as a high-achieving, high-earning people and pits them against other minorities. Regardless of the sentiment behind the petition, the White House is obliged to address the petition within 60 days, given that its more than 210,000 signatures have far surpassed the 100,000 needed for an official response.
Since he moved to the U.K. at the age of 14, Zhang has thrown himself into the country’s political sphere, completing three work experience placements in the House of Commons and questioning former Prime Minister David Cameron on the BBC political debate program “Question Time.”
Hoping to pursue an undergraduate degree this fall in philosophy, politics, and economics, Zhang believes that philosophical theory holds the key to getting the right balance of nationalism. Too much nationalism and you run the risk of “jingoism” — one of the many English terms with which he peppers his speech. Too little, and you will lose your sense of identity.
Zhang spoke to Sixth Tone about why a petition concerning a Vietnamese-American found resonance with the Chinese community, how he justifies the use of the “lives matter” slogan, and what Chinese nationalism means to him. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: Why petition?
Zhang Zishi: I became enraged after reading about the incident in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN. I was deeply upset about how the elderly victim was treated in such a violent manner.
I believed that starting a petition was the most effective and engaging way to get the message across to the public. Before this, I had initiated a petition in the U.K. [about the underrepresentation of female philosophers in the national school curriculum] that led to BBC coverage and an interview on the matter; it caught quite a lot of social attention.
The goal of the petition was to call for an investigation by the federal government. I was not jumping to conclusions. I just felt that how this man was chosen at random and treated like this had something to do with his ethnicity and his identity.
Some friends pointed out that the petition had quite a few grammar and spelling mistakes, and also that the hashtag in it could trigger different interpretations and misapprehensions. I didn’t overthink it, and in my indignation just submitted it as soon as I had finished writing. I couldn’t make any edits after it was published. I saw something unfair and thought I should do something about it.
Sixth Tone: What, then, was your reaction to the news that the victim was in fact Vietnamese-American?
Zhang: I don’t think this went against my original intentions in any way. My goal was to fight for justice for everyone.
There were compatriots, people from home, and people from abroad who signed the petition. This reflects the fact that they, too, may have experienced or heard of cases of mistreatment based on their ethnicity. This is probably why the petition received more than 200,000 signatures in as little as 48 hours. People came together because it resonated with everyone.
Sixth Tone: All manner of permutations of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan exist, many of which have been criticized for appropriating a plight in which institutionalized racism is costing lives on a daily basis. How do you justify your use of the #ChineseLivesMatters hashtag?
Zhang: First of all, I don’t want to make this into some sort of competition about who has been treated worse.
However, one could argue that violence against Asian individuals is historical in its origins. When the U.S. got Chinese immigrants to work in gold mines and on the First Transcontinental Railroad, they were not exactly enslaved but were still treated as subhuman. Some died of exhaustion due to horrendous working conditions and explosions. Then there were the internment camps for Japanese prisoners during the Second World War. There are many cases when Asians have been killed or violently attacked, and the community has been left feeling they have not received justice.
Furthermore, the campaign by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus against the “model minority” myth has further highlighted the case that there is huge prejudice, misunderstanding, and discrimination. Such treatment might be normalized, institutionalized, or lost amid media sensationalization, but it is not justified.
Sixth Tone: Petition aside, your portfolio suggests a deep interest in politics. Where does this passion come from?
Zhang: None of my family members are in politics. I had thought about [working in this field] when I first started studying British politics, but now my plan is to enter academic research. I’m most interested in the areas of philosophy, theology, and classics.
I hope that once I’ve equipped myself with knowledge in these fields from the West, I can use a set of systematic and scientific approaches to categorize theories of Chinese philosophy, theology, and classics, then introduce them to the world, [so that the East and West can] exchange ideas and learn from each other, rather than there being this deficit.
Sixth Tone: “Chineseness” — or "zhonghua minzu qinghuai (中華民族情懷)" in Chinese — is a term that has gained traction in recent times. Do your petition and the reception it has garnered speak to rising nationalistic sentiment in China?
Zhang: I think this type of “Chineseness” is on a par with nationalism in Western politics. To some degree, this kind of nationalism exists within everyone.
Nationalism is just like any other quality. For example, in Aristotelian theory, “virtue ethics” will have a negative impact if there is too much or too little. Too much nationalism might cause jingoism or chauvinism, whereas depletion would lead to a loss of identity. The most important thing is to control the “golden mean,” a term associated with Aristotle [that refers to the balance between two extremes]. In Chinese culture, it can be explained through the [Confucian philosophy of] “Doctrine of the Mean.” Such concepts show how much the cultures and academic theory of China and the West resemble each other.
When faced with such unfair and inhumane behavior, I think any normal human being would condemn it, offer support, and take action to change things for the better. This is why I launched the petition, and this, I believe, is why everyone else signed it.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
TNL Editor: Olivia Yang