A Twitter war with Chinese nationalists has spawned the new “Milk Tea” alliance between pro-democracy social media users in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. The new links signal the possibility of dialogue between pro-democracy movements that often struggle to gain ground.
Last week, an online feud with Chinese nationalists sparked a new alliance between pro-democracy social media users in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The new triad has dubbed itself the “Milk Tea” alliance, after the similarities between Thai tea, Taiwanese bubble tea and Hong Kong milk tea.
The alliance came together after Chinese internet users began criticizing Thai actor Vachirawat “Bright” Cheeva-ari for sharing a tweet that referred to Hong Kong as a country. As the Chinese internet trolls’ anger mounted, they unearthed posts by Bright’s girlfriend, Thai model Weeraya Sukaram. They included a retweet suggesting the novel coronavirus was created in a Chinese laboratory and an Instagram post in which she suggested Taiwan was not part of China.
Though the feud began as a petty bout over social media posts, it has now taken on aspects of a transnational alliance and offers insights into the links between pro-democracy movements in the region.
The two sides exchanged memes and a barrage of online insults but most of the jabs that Chinese trolls aimed at Thailand haven’t landed as they hoped. Thai users questioned Beijing’s One China policy and President Xi Jinping’s leadership, but when Chinese nationalists responded by criticising the behavior of King Vajiralongkorn, many Thai Twitter users egged them on. The monarchy is a revered institution for many but Thai Twitter users, being largely critical of the state, welcomed the taunts; the Chinese were voicing criticisms that they dared not because of Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law.
When Chinese users pointed to Thailand’s challenges as a developing country, or to the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, the response was similar.
“The Chinese ‘insults’ were in fact just popular talking points among progressive young Thais nowadays,” wrote James Buchanan, a researcher on Thai politics at the City University of Hong Kong.
Thais also welcomed the chiding comments about the country’s government.
“They have long been opposed to the Thai government under the Prayuth regime, and then they see there is no difference between China and Thailand,” said Thai activist Nuttaa Mahattana, referring to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who also led the country’s military dictatorship until last year.
Chinese nationalists on social media sparked a moment of solidarity
Users in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia, voiced support for the Thais and the controversy soon became regional, with users from the Milk Tea Alliance countries congratulating one another for taking on the Chinese trolls.
The feud has produced millions of posts with billions of views, trending across Chinese internet platform Weibo as well as Twitter, under the hashtag #NNevy, for Weeraya’s online moniker.
This is also due in large part to the participation of Chinese internet trolls—possibly paid. Reuters and social media consultancy Drone Emprit both found pro-Chinese Twitter bots apparently created especially to join the feud, despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China and users in the country must turn to VPNs to access the site.
The new alliance doesn’t represent a new regional political movement; it’s based mostly on opposition to Chinese authoritarianism and nationalism, especially as expressed online. But it does serve as a moment—or maybe more—of international solidarity in a region where such connections are rare. Though many pro-democracy groups across Southeast Asia face parallel struggles with authoritarianism, there is little transnational support or coordination beyond specific issues, and then only when prompted by NGOs.
“China has been stepping up its influence in Asia, the threat is now on our doorstep. Therefore, I hope all Asian societies can build pan-Asian solidarity to fend off all forms of authoritarianism from China,” wrote Hong Kong pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong.
Online feud reflects real political challenges for the region
The dispute has moved on from social media bickering to also address real regional issues. Users connected the dispute to recent news of satellite evidence showing that Chinese dams withheld water from the lower Mekong last year, causing intense drought throughout the region.
“I also call on Hongkongers and Taiwanese to support our allies in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” Wong posted on Twitter. “It is utterly immoral for China to control the water in the Mekong River and let people die of severe drought.”
In Thailand, solidarity with Hong Kong and Taiwan was already a key stance for some pro-democracy movements.
“The backlash shows that the official narrative repeated among governments, armies and elites isn’t widely accepted in Thai society,” Wasana Wongsurawat, an expert on China at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters. “Anti-Beijing sentiment has become a part of Thais’ fight against authoritarianism.”
The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok joined the feud and posted a long message to Facebook in defense of the One China policy, claiming that the “recent online noises” do not represent “the mainstream public opinion of the Thai People” and that “the kinship of ‘China and Thailand as one family’” will become stronger through the pandemic.
The embassy’s note didn’t land well with the Milk Tea Alliance, which rejected the idea of Thai-Chinese bonds growing stronger. One of the Thai hashtags with over one million posts on Wednesday translated as “#MilkTeaIsThickerThanBlood”.
“This is the first transnational geopolitical Twitter war Thais have engaged in,” said Prajak Kongkirati of Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “We see people questioning China’s actions and influence… The celebrity issue is the tip of the iceberg.”
The alliance may not translate into anything more than memes, but even memes have proven politically significant for Thailand’s progressive groups. It does represent a ground-up, popular moment of international solidarity between pro-democracy groups in the region and the connection across borders is potentially powerful. The new links signal the possibility of dialogue and sharing of ideas between pro-democracy movements that often struggle to gain ground.