Boiling Up: The Milk Tea Alliance and Democracy in Asia

February 28, 2022

Most internet fights begin with an insult and end with all insulted. This internet fight began with an insult and ended in an alliance currently driving ‘a pan-Asian grassroots movement’ for the promotion and consolidation of democracy across the entire region.

In early April, a screenshot began circling on the Chinese net. Popular Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree commented on a post his girlfriend Nev Weeraya had made while on holiday in Taiwan.

‘Beautiful, [dressed] like a Chinese girl,’ he wrote.

‘What?’ was the translation of Weeraya’s response.

‘What style is this?’ a fan asked below.

‘Taiwanese girl!’ Weeraya replied.

With Mandarin translation pasted over the original, this screenshot spread across the Chinese internet at speeds befitting the wild popularity of Chivaaree’s new “idol drama” in China. Within hours, accusations of ‘support for independent Taiwan’ and ‘contravention of the one China principle’ began to mount against Weeraya. Later the same night, her accusers dug up a screenshot of “idol” Chivaaree himself retweeting an infographic that listed Hong Kong as an independent country. Now the troops would officially “come out on campaign” (出征 chūzhēng).

Such “campaigns” are not uncommon. The soldiers that fill their ranks are a special breed of keyboard warrior - comprising both incensed Communist Party devotees “Little Pinks” (小粉紅 xiǎo fěnhóng) and mercenaries of the ‘5 Dime Army’ (五毛黨 wǔmáo dǎng).

The “Little Pinks” are a force of young and technologically literate ethnic nationalists often misrepresented as predominantly female and sometimes compared to the Red Guard, though they lack the cohesion that might imply. The ‘5 Dime Army’ are so called for the pay-per-post status of their alleged employment. Purportedly earning 5 Chinese dimes every time they attack an enemy of Beijing or derail a “politically sensitive” conversation, this keyboard army have generated almost half a billion “fake” posts across Western social media platforms since they surfaced in the early 2000s.

In combination, this fearsome fighting force lurch from one obscure outrage to the next - if they’re not bravely battling an independent game studio, you’ll find them taking on a K-pop band with nothing but their typing hands and unsubstantiated accusations to rely on. Just a few weeks ago, they decided to throw down against a Vtuber (think Hatsune Miku but vloggier) for daring to display seconds of a YouTube analytic listing Taiwan as an AdSense source separate to the Chinese mainland.

So the “campaign” against Chivaaree and Weeraya was not unprecedented - not even unusual. For the most part, it progressed as normal. The “antagonists” suffered a sudden outpouring of vitriol across their social media accounts while a flood of hashtags charged the couple with ‘insulting China’ (辱華 rǔhuá). Chivaaree’s ‘idol’ drama was hit with heavy review bombing on Douban (China’s IMDB) while many called for its boycott on Twitter and Aiqiyi (China’s Netflix).

After a few hours, the great furore had died down and all looked to be at peace once more - only emotional trauma to mark the campaign’s passing. Most simply end at this point. In short thrift, a PR company will issue an apology to regain Chinese market access while the original object of ire “learn their lesson” and begin self-censoring - consciously or otherwise.

This time, however, the red army would not return from their long march unscathed. Before the troops could evacuate, an unfamiliar hashtag began climbing the Twitter rankings: #Nnevvy. Named after Weeraya’s instagram account, Thai users of the hashtag were flocking to her defence. Not only that: the home front were returning fire. Thai net warriors fought back with a flood of memes and self-deprecation entirely lacking for their nationalist adversary. Before long, the debate turned political:

‘Where’d your king run off to?’ jeered the Little Pinks.

‘We’re also looking for him! Thanks for the concern!’

‘The Thai president’s an idiot!’

‘We know! Never stop shouting it!’

‘Your country is poor!’

‘Your country is Pooh!’

By now, twitter users from other countries were entering the fray. Big guns came out:

‘Does Tiananmen 1989 ring any bells?’ taunted the Thais.

‘How about the 1976 massacre in Bangkok?’

‘Thank you, yes. We must all remember such parts of history. Are you ready to do the same?’

Every attack was countered, every grenade hurled back. When the Chinese embassy in Bangkok issued a criticism of the internet spate in officialese, attacks only escalated. Turning away from the Little Pinks and their jeers, Thai netizens began targeting higher-profile figures with general criticism of the Beijing regime and expressions of distaste for China’s zero-transparency authoritarianism

As dust settled on an emptied battlefield, the victors took stock. Geographically separated but united in cyberspace, the impromptu #Nnevvy coalition had made victory against Beijing look easy. In all, some 200,000 tweets had been fired into the ether, setting records for twitter in Thailand. Those who had rushed to Thailand’s defence hailed mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan - two groups intimately familiar with the endless parade of Little Pinks, Five Dimes, outrage and campaign. Almost without concerted effort, an alliance was born. Founded on shared cultural heritage, democratic ideals and an aptitude for memes, the Milk Tea Alliance was to be the first of its kind: a volunteer force of fighters on the front lines against Beijing’s keyboard cult.

Fanfare: The Teas Take Stock (Source: @tpagon)
Fanfare: The Teas Take Stock (Source: @tpagon)

The movement began to spread almost as quickly as the original screenshot had in China. Independent artists offered creative input while volunteer forces coalesced. Hong Kong breakfast blogger Milkteaology posted in solidarity to a shower of likes and shares.

Put ‘em Up: Drinking to Democracy (Source: Facebook - Milkteaology)
Put ‘em Up: Drinking to Democracy (Source: Facebook - Milkteaology)

What had started as little more than a ‘Twitter war between Thailand and China’ was turning into ‘meaningful diplomatic engagement,’ according to Tracy Beattie of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen tweeted in Thai for the very first time in early April, wishing ‘friends’ in the neighbouring country a ‘happy Songkran’ and a New Year of ‘hope and much happiness’. Wasana Wongsurawat, professor of Chinese history at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, expressed amazement that such a directly anti-CCP movement could spread into Thailand, ‘a sovereign country that doesn’t even list Chinese as a national language’.

With a little perspective, however, it is clear that this fierce opposition to Beijing reflects both rising anti-China and anti-authoritarian feeling in Thailand, amplified by the ongoing drought along the lower reaches of the Mekong river. Beginning in the Tibetan highlands, this immense waterway flows through Yunnan in China to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, emptying through a vast delta in Vietnam and providing a livelihood to 60 million people. Beginning in the 2000s, Beijing constructed a series of 11 dams along this vital artery to control water flow, prevent flooding and meet insatiable energy requirements. When drought began to strike agricultural productivity in Thailand and beyond last year, farmers and fishermen witnessed water levels so low that the river’s muddy bed was becoming visible - a sight unseen for fifty years. According to photographic analysis, water sank to some three metres below expected levels for Cambodia’s rainy season while upriver in Chinese Yunnan, levels remained average ‘or better’. China has never publicised data on its dam capacity, but American research institute Eyes on Earth estimate that their vast reservoirs hold some 4.7 billion cubic metres of water. Yet as the drought continued holding Indochina to ransom, Beijing refused to open their sluices and let the remedy flow downstream. This battle for life and death among already struggling communities was added to the Milk Tea roster with Thai, Hong Kong and Taiwanese internet activists coming together to satirise China’s two-faced ‘one family’ rhetoric.

At the same time, domestic tyranny has sensitised Thai youth to the dangers of nationalist fervour. In 2014, a military coup installed the still-reigning government and vowed to amplify executive power, only drafting a constitution three years later in 2017. The 2019 general election was perceived by many as little more than window dressing for the ancien régime and by early April this year, popular feeling against the ruling junta had already boiled over into the streets.

When domestic tensions in Thailand spilled into the real world for a second time in mid-July, Milk Tea became a uniting force on the front lines of Thailand’s fight for democracy. Holding up Milk Tea iconography, Thai student Akrawat Siripattanachok and his group of protesters told Reuters: ‘we don’t want to just talk about it online. We want a pan-Asian alliance for democracy.’ Alongside them, fellow members raised placards and expressed their own affiliations across Asia. With the popular movement flooding Bangkok, many gathered in Taipei to demonstrate support from across the South China Sea. Singaporean activist Roy Ngerng was among them: ‘the Milk Tea Alliance [has become] the common ground from which we can express our solidarity in humorous and safe spaces,’ he said. ‘Solidarity is taking on a more organisational and structural form’.

The successful pouring of Milk Tea from cyberspace to reality demonstrates the extent of pro-democratic feeling across East Asia, because such alliances of disparate people across the internet are often too loose to exert any real influence. By 2018, over half of Americans reported engagement in one or another ‘socially conscious’ activity on social media, but movements born overnight in cyberspace are prone to disintegrate just as quickly as they form. Occupy Wall Street found enormous momentum in a matter of weeks, but its energy dissipated before group strength could even face a real test. Turkey’s Gezi Park protests followed a similar trajectory. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote in Twitter and Tear Gas: ‘the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.’

Yet the Milk Tea Alliance seems to have entered social consciousness with enough vitality to not simply stay alive, but thrive. The Taiwanese Digital Diplomacy Lab focussed Milk Tea cooperation on Taiwan and India with a tweet earlier this year entirely unrelated to Thailand and the movement’s original impetus. Equally, when widespread opposition to Alexander Lukashenko erupted into a national movement across Belarus, Milk Tea observers saw ‘kindred spirits’ in activists halfway around the world. Before long, the ‘Ryazhenka’ - a traditional Slavic dairy drink - began featuring in Milk Tea conversations. Former chairman of Hong Kong’s Demosisto party Joshua Wong expressed belief in the movement’s power: ‘whether it’s Belarussia, Thailand or any other place suffering injustice, we shall continue fighting for the same beliefs.’

Mohdis Opperandi? (Source: Source: Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Lab)
Mohdis Opperandi? (Source: Source: Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Lab)

In the eyes of many young activists, then, the Milk Tea Alliance represents not simply pro-democratic resistance, but an ideological framework within which to interpret and promote empathy between disparate struggles across the globe. Of course there is danger in stretching any group beyond its limits. While there may be apparent similarities between a struggle for democratic freedom in Thailand and Hong Kong, the cultural and historical underpinnings of those currents vary greatly. Equally, the Thai people’s desire to be rid of a military junta is very different to Belorussia’s fight against an entrenched ex-Soviet leader. If one group projects too much internal empathy onto another, an obscuration of individual struggles may entail. Wong’s assertion that all democratic movements fight for the same set of beliefs errs close to a dangerous generalisation.

Yet many tenets of our global democratic shift are indeed shared. As typified by the Milk Tea Alliance, popular demonstrations of the past few years have all relied on social media, employed popular culture and used memes to transmit their demands to wide audiences. In Thailand, the familiar theme song of Japanese cartoon Hamataro was repurposed to express dissatisfaction with fiscal policy. To avoid prosecution under Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, protestors have dressed up in wizard outfits and referred to their king as ‘he who shall not be named’. When student leader Parit Chiwarak was arrested, he raised three fingers in deference to the famous symbol of resistance in The Hunger Games trilogy - a gesture which has gone on to become the symbol of Thailand’s continued protest movement.

On to Boil: Milk Tea Protesters Take to the Streets (Source: Taipei Times)
On to Boil: Milk Tea Protesters Take to the Streets (Source: Taipei Times)

With Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha refusing to step down in September and pulling Bangkok into a ‘state of emergency’ from the 15th of this month, protest in Thailand has turned ugly. The army are now permitted to aid civil forces in suppressing “unrest” and the government reserves the right to arrest and detain any citizen at any time without legal cause. Last Thursday, the police used Thailand’s ‘extremely controversial’ charge of ‘endangering the queen’ to issue a wanted notice against student protestors. This crime carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment and evidence implicating these students in any attempt to endanger the royal family is scanty at best, entirely fabricated at worst.

Formed from a group of engaged Milk Tea activists, the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy (TATD) are hoping to provide long-term assistance in the fight against Prayut and oppression. ‘People [in the Milk Tea Alliance] are sick of the unending expansion of autocracy,’ a spokesperson said. ‘We are the young generation of a rising Asia and we want to curb this visible trend towards autocracy by demonstrating for the world our belief in democratic values. Fighting for a fairer and more equal society is not “westernisation” - it’s an outlook common across the world for people who desire self-determination and the realisation of greater freedom’.

To that, I raise my beaker. Milk tea forever!

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