Jun 8, 2020 - World

Asian "Milk Tea Alliance" spills over to Hong Kong protests

Illustration of hands grasped around a cup of milk tea with the Hong Kong flag within

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A social media movement started by users in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand to fight back against China's nationalist online army has turned its attention to Beijing's new national security law for Hong Kong.

Why it matters: The "Milk Tea Alliance" — which refers to sweet tea drinks that are popular in eastern and Southeast Asia — highlights the solidarity between Taiwan and Hong Kong and the growing distrust of Beijing in the region, particularly among younger people.

The big picture: This all began with a Twitter feud in April after two Thai celebrities supported the independence of Taiwan and Hong Kong from China.

  • The hashtags #MilkTeaAlliance and #MilkTeaIsThickerThanBlood first trended on Twitter in Thailand, followed by other countries, and have been used in over a million tweets.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok formally addressed the issue on April 14, accusing "some particular people" of "inflaming and sabotaging the friendship between the Chinese and Thai people."
  • What started as a China-Thailand meme war then spiraled into a debate on regional issues such as the coronavirus.

While that debate has raged online, political events have been bringing Taiwan and Hong Kong closer together.

  • Taiwan has vowed to give assistance to Hong Kong residents fleeing the former British colony for political reasons, further angering Beijing.
  • The number of Hong Kongers moving to Taiwan was up 150% in the first four months of this year from the same period last year, Reuters reports.
  • President Tsai Ing-wen expressed solidarity in a Facebook post, while Taiwanese people have showed theirs by sending protective gear to protesters in Hong Kong.

Beyond Taiwan, messages of solidarity with Hong Kong have been coming in from across the online "alliance."

  • In Thailand, which has seen its own protests against an autocratic government, a student activist group handed out milk tea-flavored cookies to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, some in the shape of the iconic "tank man" image.
  • In the Philippines, citizens quickly joined the online coalition, citing Beijing's continued militarization in the disputed South China Sea. Polling suggests younger Filipinos are significantly more likely to support the Hong Kong protests than their older counterparts.

The bottom line: Dan McDevitt, a researcher on technology and human rights, tells Axios, "When your shared adversary is as big as the Chinese Community Party, there’s an increased recognition of the power that comes with banding together."

  • The alliance, he says, has led to "increased awareness, attention and sympathy" across the region, "especially when they’re facing their own pro-democracy struggles at home." Users are realizing how much they share, beyond a love for milk tea.
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