Digitally Dismantling Asian Authoritarianism

Activist Reflections from the #MilkTeaAlliance

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  • 1 PhD candidate, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • | 2 Activist, China

Abstract

In April 2020, a Twitter war erupted under the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance. It united users from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in a fight against Chinese techno-nationalists’ attempts to shame public figures into supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s framing of geopolitics. In the months that followed, Thai, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong activists continued to lend support to each other through their use of this and other hashtags. Why does the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag resonate with so many? What political contexts preceded the consolidation of the #MilkTeaAlliance, and how may this alliance reshape geopolitical landscapes offline? We approach these questions from our perspective as activists embedded in these movements. We argue that the formation of the #MilkTeaAlliance unites voices that are marginalized diplomatically, discursively, and affectively by the CCP, and—more crucially—generates valuable affective and physical forms of intra-Asian solidarity against authoritarianism in the region.

On 9 April 2020, Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree—known to his fans as “Bright”—liked a tweet showing Hong Kong's skyline. What might otherwise have been an uneventful incident turned into a political controversy overnight when his fans in the People's Republic of China (PRC) noticed that the tweet described Hong Kong as a “beautiful country” (Griffiths 2020). Despite Bright's subsequent apology, Chinese netizens soon discovered other online content they deemed politically incorrect from his girlfriend, Weeraya Sukaram (also known as “Nnevvy”). These included a retweeted post critical of China's role in the COVID-19 pandemic and an Instagram comment in which she appears to acknowledge Taiwan's independence from China. Within days, some Chinese netizens on Weibo, China's largest social media platform, sanctioned a nationwide boycott of Bright and his regionally popular “Boys Love” (BL) drama 2gether: The Series (เพราะเราคู่กัน; Global Times 2020). Although the show was never officially released in the PRC, the boycott nonetheless aimed to shut down the series in the PRC online sphere and ceased all production of fan-generated subtitles into Chinese.

What soon transpired was a “Twitter War between Chinese Nationalist Trolls and Young Thais,” as one headline from Vice News put it (Buchanan 2020). On 13 April, a Hong Kong Twitter user (@ShawTim) posted a meme depicting Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan joining hands that said, “#nnevvy we are the #MilkTeaAlliance.” Another user quickly responded to this tweet and suggested that supporters start using #MilkTeaAlliance to replace the originally trending hashtag #nnevvy, likely a strategic move to broaden the discourse beyond the Bright/Nnevvy incident. The term “#MilkTeaAlliance” first appeared in English-language media the following day in the final sentence of an article posted to Reuters (Tanakasempipat and Potkin 2020). In the wake of millions of tweets under this new hashtag, the very next day Reuters published another article, giving much more substantive attention to the #MilkTeaAlliance and calling it a “movement” (Tanakasempipat 2020) uniting people from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in their opposition to authoritarian regimes—and love for their local versions of milk tea.

On the surface, this incident might seem no different from the American reaction to, and use of memes in response to, the Chinese boycott of the National Basketball Association (NBA) sparked by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's tweet in support of the Hong Kong movement (Dynel and Poppi 2020) in late 2019. Similarities notwithstanding, the #MilkTeaAlliance response was different in that it aroused transnational, intra-Asian ire among people with direct experiences of Chinese (and Thai) authoritarianism, and has generated the potential for sustained and long-term intra-regional solidarity.

In this article, we ask: what political contexts precede the formation of the #MilkTeaAlliance to make it resonate with so many Thai, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong people? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what are the physical, offline, and potentially long-term implications of this alliance? In the following, we attempt to historicize and contextualize this alliance by linking it to, on one hand, previous cases of Han nationalist censorship and regulatory practices imposed on Hong Kong and Taiwan, and on the other hand, Thai experiences of marginalization and silencing at the hands of the Thai military-derived government and the CCP. Specifically, we first lay out the CCP's ideological apparatus of Han ethnonationalism as necessary background for contextualizing the ideological conformity it demands in how Hong Kong and Taiwan are framed. We then explain how this plays out in Hong Kong and Taiwan's entertainment industries, and the crossover to Thailand that triggered the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag movement. From there, we zoom out to explain the broader significance of ideological conformity to Beijing's narrative of geopolitics as prerequisite for access to China's economy: a new form of party-state-led cancel culture. This provides the springboard for our discussion of the #MilkTeaAlliance as a intra-Asian response to online enforcement of CCP cancel culture outside its more commonly policed Sinophone borders. Additionally, but no less importantly, we provide context for the Thai response to the CCP's growing influence in the Asia Pacific region and its perceived support of the Thai military-derived government. Addressing our first question, we argue that the alliance sparked a growing sense of interconnectedness between those directly resisting the CCP in Hong Kong and Taiwan and those in Thailand who perceive the CCP regime to be a key enabler of the post-2014 Thai junta.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Mobile phone screenshot of Bright's apology (Twitter, 10 April 2020).

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

In response to our second question, we draw on the examples of Thai-Taiwanese solidarity protests in Taipei, as well as glimpses of support for the Thai protests in post-National Security Law Hong Kong, to tease out the long-term and physical manifestations of the #MilkTeaAlliance. The first example—that of the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy—serves as a pertinent physical manifestation of the #MilkTeaAlliance and the ways in which its online discourse is generating Asian youth-led democracy movements on the streets. The second example illustrates the ways in which the #MilkTeaAlliance gives emotional and affective strength to repressed movements. To clarify these terms, we adopt Jonathan Flatley's (2008: 12) definition which proposes that while “emotion suggests something that happens inside and tends toward outward expression, affect indicates something relational and transformative.” We proffer that beyond being a handy Twitter hashtag “harnessed as an amplifying mobilization and publicity resource” (Bennett and Segerberg 2013: 112), the #MilkTeaAlliance is—arguably more importantly—a way of sustaining mutual affective support.

In his study of digital democracy in Asia, Shin Haeng Lee (2017: 78) demonstrates the “gain in psychological resources for participation such as self-efficacious feelings about politics” that users in the region experience when utilizing digital technologies for political purposes. Similar to hashtags used in the Arab Spring and other recent social movements, “the affective aspects of [these] messages nurture and sustain involvement, connection, and cohesion (Papacharissi and Oliveira 2012: 279). Unlike the Arab Spring, however, the #MilkTeaAlliance involves dual-track attention to localized struggles for democratic reform and to the broader struggle against a behemoth authoritarian regime in Beijing that not only threatens Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also lends critical support to autocracies in the region. For the activists we work alongside, the #MilkTeaAlliance is a way of knowing that one's struggle is seen and supported elsewhere in Asia—of affectively catalyzing collective sentiment and action. Concomitantly, we recognize that “[t]here are clearly limits to the utility of organic allyship hashtags in creating the kind of solidarity that brings about measurable social change”; yet, as recent work on digital activism has shown, “these hashtags nonetheless promulgate important conversations online and in the larger media ecosystem” (Jackson et al. 2020: 183, emphasis added).

In the final section, we offer some concluding remarks by way of a research-activist call to solidarity with these movements that underscores the need for epistemological rupture through a decolonial framing of East Asia and the ways in which this empowers solidarity with other struggles for self-determination. As a contested terrain of “digital political literacy” in Asia (Sun 2014: 243), the #MilkTeaAlliance empowers ordinary citizens to “insert themselves into the symbolic order and make moral and political interventions in the field of public culture.” It thus offers a rich field of analysis for understanding how Asian youth activists are harnessing the internet to make such interventions.

In terms of methodology, we approach this subject not merely as a scholarly pursuit but as participants in and supporters of the Thai and Hong Kong protests against repression and Taiwan's struggle to preserve its sovereignty. Our coverage of the Twitter war that sparked the #MilkTeaAlliance draws on a multi-month observation from April 2020 to February 2021 of tweets using the hashtags #nnevvy, #MilkTeaAlliance, and related spinoff hashtags, as well as public posts in other online spaces (e.g., Weibo, Facebook, Twitter, and LIHKG). We also draw on insider information from protest-related channels (e.g., Telegram, Signal, and private communication) while maintaining the anonymity of those concerned. As insiders of the political struggles delineated, we offer this article as a tentative consideration and a call to more reflection on the ways in which digital solidarity can function as a decolonial praxis, giving voice to demurring subjectivities and their calls for self-determination in the face of authoritarian and illiberal practices (Glasius 2018) and epistemological structures of domination.

Contextualizing the #MilkTeaAlliance for Hong Kong and Taiwan: Marginalization of Hong Kong and Taiwan Within a Han Ethnonationalist Party-State Ideology

After the 1997 handover to the PRC and the 2003 protests against a proposed antisubversion law, Hong Kong's relationship with authoritarian “China has become more strained, [and] its people have become more concerned to define a ‘Hong Kong’ identity that can be defended from external threat” (Ip 2020). Between the 2014 Umbrella movement against the PRC's refusal to let Hong Kong freely elect its own leader and the 2019–2020 Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) protests, more and more Hong Kongers felt alienated by Beijing's heavy-handed policies toward their democratic demands. Given that the “rule of law has become firmly embedded in Hong Kong as a core cultural value, central to people's civic identity” (Jones 2015: 254), the assault on pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong and the July 2020 implementation of Beijing's “National Security Act” has not only exacerbated fear, but also “encouraged civil society to develop alternative channels of resistance and identity-formation” (ibid: 209). This has led to a state of dissent where “Chinese identity is increasingly viewed as subjugation to an illiberal authoritarian regime that is opposite to the self-understanding of many Hong Kongers” (Ortmann 2020: 15, emphasis added). Ultimately, this is rooted in “the anxiety over Hong Kong as a collective form of life” and “their anguish about the ‘disappearance’ or ‘death’ of Hong Kong” (Ip 2020: 11). Various forms of Hong Kong nationalism (Wu 2021) and calls for “independence” (which should be understood as a “call of conscience” for universal suffrage and self-determination in the face of the PRC's dismantling of Hong Kong's autonomy) have subsequently emerged.1 Supporters are keenly “aware of the reality constraints and [are] in full knowledge of the low chance of success”; and yet, more importantly, “the independence of Hong Kong has evolved into a ‘moral imperative’ transcending linear calculations of interests” (Elton Wing-ching Chan, quoted in Lam 2020: 88).

The failed “One Country, Two Systems” (OCTS) formula in Hong Kong is interpreted by many Taiwanese as a reality check against any compromise on their sovereignty. The casuistry inherent in OCTS has “enabled Taiwanese activists to develop new sympathies and alliances with their counterparts in Hong Kong” (Rowen 2015: 18). The rising threat of the “China factor” (中國因素) to Taiwan's autonomy became increasingly clear under President Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) rapprochement policies toward the PRC. In particular, the Wild Strawberries Movement (野草莓運動) in 2008 protested the excessive use of force by the Taiwanese police in the latter's ban on the displaying of Republic of China (Taiwan) and Tibetan flags, as well as anti-annexation slogans (such as “Taiwan does not belong to China”), along the routes taken in Taipei by a sixty-member delegation from the PRC's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (海峽兩岸關系協會). Later, during Ma's second term, the Sunflower Student Movement (太陽花學運) erupted in 2014 into a twenty-three-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's parliament). Core participants formally called it the “March 18 Citizen's Movement” (三一八公民運動) in an attempt to recast their protest as a broader social movement involving more than just students (Ho et al. 2020). Opposing “what [they] viewed as authoritarian, undemocratic, and despotic actions by the Ma administration” (Hioe 2020a: 124), they assailed the ruling party's unilateral decision to bulldoze through the ratification of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (海峽兩岸服務貿易協議) without careful legislative review, as originally promised. Galvanizing the opposition was a grave concern that this “black box” agreement would make Taiwan vulnerable to political manipulation through economic coercion by the PRC. The movement ultimately succeeded in forcing the government to scrap the deal.

These protests highlighted how in Taiwan, “life [falls] under constant threat of disappearance into the economic, cultural, and, possibly, political folds of its powerful Mainland counterpart” (Dirlik 2018: 2). For Taiwan, Hong Kong exemplifies and indeed actualizes this fear of what Taiwanese call wangguogan (亡國感): the feeling of losing one's country. In recent years, Hong Kong and Taiwan increasingly perceive their struggles for autonomy as intertwined and fundamentally opposed to Beijing's authoritarian vision of their futures:

Hong Kong has become an internal colony of China since handover, ruled indirectly through a local collaborator regime. In between stands the independent Taiwan nevertheless excluded from the UN and placed awkwardly under the competing hegemonies of the US and PRC. (Wu 2021: 59)

In reflecting on this predicament and on comparisons with PRC influence elsewhere in the world, Andrew J. Nathan (2021: 341) reminds us that “[i]t is only in Hong Kong and Taiwan that Chinese influence poses an existential threat to the target society's autonomous existence.” Thus, Taiwan and Hong Kong's defensive identity formation must be understood and championed within this context, and not as “separatist forces” trying to “divide” the “Chinese nation,” as CCP propaganda would have the world believe.

Historian Yinghong Cheng (2019: 240) has pointed out that the ethnonationalist idea that “Chineseness” is defined by blood and has nothing to do with the nationality on one's passport is “a political message that ha[s] been constantly sent out to the global Chinese diaspora by the CCP regime since the early 1980s.” Originally fostered by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) tropes of “China's destiny” and a staunch belief that “Chinese people could not wipe out their ‘national humiliation’ until they had recovered all of the lost territories” (Perdue 2015: 1012), and later radicalized by a more powerful CCP (Hsiao and Sullivan 1979), such messaging has been laser-focused on drowning out any identity that challenges its Han ethnonationalist ideology. One of the main strategies the CCP has employed is to conflate the Party with the nation (CCP = China = Party/State). If the two are not carefully distinguished (or are undiscerningly inter-referenced) then such conceptual blending is rarely challenged. However, as one Taiwanese youth leader living in Matsu, near the Fujian border of China, recently stated:

The Communist Party tries to tell the world that, if a person identifies with Chinese culture, then they must support the Communist Party. What we are trying to do is to break that link. We see a growing number of people that identify with Chinese culture, AND simultaneously stand against China annexing Taiwan … what we are seeing in the younger generation here is that people can be simultaneously proud of their Fujian heritage AND stand adamantly against authoritarianism. (Li 2021)

In contested lands like Hong Kong and Taiwan, the CCP's Han ethnonationalist framework and centralizing drive for a unitary state ruled from Beijing has led to a protracted center–periphery conflict in which “the temporal differentiation between colonial and post-colonial conditions is problematized” (Salih et al. 2020: 2). The Party-State understands itself as “rejuvenating” a nation state, whereas many in Hong Kong and Taiwan view this as revanchist overreach. These intractable differences are key to understanding Beijing's conflict with Hong Kong and Taiwan and the reasons for which an online movement like the #MilkTeaAlliance was triggered in response to Chinese nationalist demands for ideological conformity.

Narrative Policing in Hong Kong and Taiwan's Entertainment Industries

In Hong Kong since the early 2000s, both the music (Chow 2007) and film industries (Cheung, Marchetti, and Ching-Mei Esther Yau 2018) have reallocated resources to produce Mandarin songs and coproductions for the PRC market; the political ramifications of Hong Kong celebrities’ financial reliance on China became very clear during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Dorothy Lau (2018) points out, actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai (梁朝偉), Anthony Wong Chau-sang (黃秋生), Nicky Cheung Ka-fai (張家輝), and Chapman To (杜汶澤), and musicians Anthony Wong Yiu-ming (黃耀明) and Denise Ho (何韻詩) were all sanctioned in the PRC for their support of the protest (some were criticized for their political stance, while others were outright blacklisted). Likewise, commercials starring Chow Yun-fat (周潤發) and Andy Lau (劉德華)—who spoke against police brutality—were reported to have been removed in the PRC (Victor et al. 2019).

While Hong Kong celebrities are financially punished when showing support online or in the media for pro-democracy movements in their city, their Taiwanese counterparts are sanctioned for merely mentioning their country's sovereignty and its elected leaders. Imposing obedience to the “Taiwan is part of China” mantra—a key component of what Jieh-min Wu (2021: 26) calls the CCP's “symbolic sovereignty warfare” against Taiwan—has only worsened since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) became President in 2016 and refused to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus” (the idea that “mainland” China and Taiwan are all part of China; see Liu 2020), which she criticized as being part of Beijing's goal of annexing Taiwan (“unification”). In 2019, popular Taiwanese YouTuber Potter King (波特王) was pressured by his Chinese promoter Papitube to remove a video featuring Tsai Ing-wen, in which he referred to her as President of Taiwan; he refused, and his lucrative Chinese contract was revoked (Chung 2019). His Weibo page was soon filled with invective from “Little Pinks,”2 China's young nationalist digital warriors, some of whom are paid but many of whom voluntarily engage in performative displays of patriotism. Another incident took place in 2015 and involved Taiwan-born K-pop singer Chou Tzu-yu (周子瑜); she made a public apology after a boycott campaign emerged in the PRC over her waving of the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag (Buckley and Ramzy 2016). Similar boycotts go back even earlier to 2000, when Indigenous Taiwanese pop star A-Mei (張惠妹) was banned for four years in China (no performances nor advertisements allowed) for singing the ROC national anthem at Chen-shui Bian's (陳水扁) presidential inauguration. However, as Mei Liao (2021: 226) points out in her astute study of this topic, the “witch hunt” of Taiwanese performers in China has intensified in recent years:

After a short period of censorship relaxation in the late 2000s, state scrutiny of content tightened up after 2012 when Xi Jinping [習近平 ] came to power. Many Taiwanese performers have since been hunted down by zealous Chinese netizens demanding they affirm their loyalty to the “motherland.”

Confessions such as Chou's demonstrate how the “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has constructed an elaborate machinery for the extraction of affect” from those not toeing the Party line. In doing so, it exercises what Christian Sorace (2020: 150–151) calls “affective sovereignty,” or the ways in which “the party-state claims sovereign jurisdiction over people's emotional life” by demanding “constant infusions of affective energy for its own legitimation.” Similarly, in his forthcoming book, Dreadful Desires: The Uses of Love in Neoliberal China, Charlie Yi Zhang marshals further evidence of how affective registers are manipulated “to facilitate China's neoliberal transition and neocolonial expansion.”3 Once confined to the perimeter of the PRC, the CCP now seeks borderless jurisdiction over its epistemic demands across Asia and beyond.

The Geopolitics of “CCP Cancel Culture”

The aforementioned online campaigners advocate the shaming of and withdrawal of support from public figures who post comments or even images that appear to question or contradict (even if unintentionally) the CCP's view of geopolitics, and particularly how they define Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other territorial claims they make. In an aggressive attempt to carefully control information and thereby “forestall challenges to the CCP's legitimacy” (Qiang 2019: 54), what we term “CCP cancel culture” (CCPCC) has become a pervasive online practice both inside and outside of China since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Beyond geopolitical concerns, social reformers within China are also targeted. In their study of Chinese feminists on social media, for example, Bin Wang and Catherine Driscoll (2019: 7) note that “censorship has posed a major problem for feminist social media activism, with some of their ‘unruly’ posts being abruptly deleted and some accounts suspended for a period.” The pervasive nature of being “canceled” for challenging official CCP discourse masters also foments anticipatory fear in would-be domestic detractors. As Chinese media scholar Jamie Zhao (2020: 467) highlights, “regulatory practices of Chinese official censorship systems often lead to self-censorship not only by celebrities, netizens, the grassroots public, and LGBTQ-identified media practitioners but also by mainstream media producers and communicative platforms.” Thus, whether it be “sensitive” topics about territorial disputes or “obstreperous” calls for social change, defenders of dissent—both domestic and international—are equally targeted.

In analyzing Chinese state media narratives about Tibet, Séagh Kehoe (2020: 1147) delineates how CCP “discourses are constantly adapting to new media technologies that enable the production of increasingly sophisticated forms of propaganda to maximize online visibility, attention and audience engagement in order to consolidate state power over Tibet.” We can reasonably extrapolate that similarly deft media strategies are being executed, both domestically and internationally, against Hong Kong and Taiwan. For example, in 2019, CCP officials discovered Twitter—a platform banned inside the PRC—and began using it to counter online discourse disparaging of their authoritarian governance. CCP-linked Twitter accounts grew rapidly in 2020 as part of the Party's broader disinformation campaign around COVID-19 and democracy protests in Hong Kong (Zhong et al. 2020); many were subsequently removed by Twitter for spreading propaganda and deliberate misinformation (Conger 2020).

Cancel culture—the product of what political scientist Charles Lipson (2020) calls the “thought police” who “monopolize [the public square] by silencing dissent”—is typically associated with the “woke” politics of the US Left. CCPCC, however, is fundamentally different from the more organic, grassroots vernacular that “cancel culture” takes in the West; it is state engineered and strategically weaponized by the CCP to police individuals, corporations, and sovereign states that seek access to China's vast economic market. Such behavior has only become more blatant as China's economic clout has risen. Rather than the result of a legitimate concern for social justice (Nwanevu 2019), CCPCC is embedded in a geopolitical framework carefully orchestrated by the Chinese state. Even its more subtle forms, which tolerate veiled criticisms to avoid the appearance of claiming that the Party is “flawless” (known in Chinese as xiao ma, da bangmang 小罵大幫忙, or “a little scolding, a big help”4)—an approach utilized by many advocating collaboration—ultimately serve the strategic purpose of normalizing the narrative aims of the Party.

The examples discussed here thus cannot be divorced from this broader background. Rhetorician Jeannie Beard (2020) has aptly pointed out that regardless of where it happens, “when people can be cancelled for differing opinions, a toxic environment is created, one of oppression, suppression, and false consensus.” CCPCC clearly meets yet far exceeds such definitions of cancel culture, in that it is globally deployed by the CCP with the purpose of “constraining, excluding and undermining alternative narratives … that contradict those of the state” (Kehoe 2020: 1142); it demands adherence as a prerequisite for access to China's market. These nuanced differences and their impacts on Asian democracy activists should not be overlooked—particularly, as we will see below, their impacts on the alternative political narratives these activists are generating with the use of hashtags.

Digitally Expanding China's Territorial Claims to Thailand: The #MilkTeaAlliance Fights Back

The CCP is particularly aggressive toward those who financially depend on the Chinese market. Such is the case with the boycott of Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree; this is a significant development in CCPCC, as Thailand is increasingly reliant on Chinese tourists and consumption of its products, including Thai BL actors, who generate a considerable portion of their revenue from Chinese fans. While CCPCC might have been a cogent force in the past, when it was mostly limited to Hong Kong and Taiwan, its transmission to Thailand has now clearly become a political threat against the Beijing leadership. On 11–12 April 2020, as the boycott of Bright expanded in the PRC, Chinese nationalists soon found their way onto Twitter to harass Bright and Weeraya. The vociferous backlash from Thais—living under authoritarianism like their Chinese neighbors—took many by surprise. But why would so many Thais care enough to digitally fight back?

In much of the outside world, Thailand is imagined as a holiday paradise full of smiling citizens, spicy food, cheap massages, and other prurient pleasures. Since it first began formally promoting tourism back in 1960, when it had fewer than one hundred thousand annual international arrivals, the Thai government has been wildly successful in carefully crafting its global “Amazing Thailand” image. In 2019, international tourist arrivals hit a record of 39 million people (Worrachaddejchai 2019), while dissatisfaction within the country increased toward what many Thais see as a repressive regime, brought to power by a coup d'état in May 2014 and now “democratically whitewashed” by a military-engineered election in March 2019 (Chambers 2020). The disconnect between the outward-facing and domestic understandings of Thailand in 2020 could not be starker. The Thai response on Twitter to CCP narrative policing of their already-restricted freedoms is a vivid case in point.

While the nation was once viewed—from 1992 to 2006—by political observers as an inspirational case of rare democratization in Southeast Asia (LoGerfo and King 1996), Thailand's military has systematically eroded civil liberties and consolidated dictatorship over the past fifteen years. After staging a putsch in May 2014, “[d]ictators in the region rushed to congratulate the coup in Bangkok so as to underpin their own dictatorships at home” (Chachavalpongpun 2020b: 22). The Thai junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, quickly began a “search for new alternatives in the country's diplomacy” by strengthening “amicable relations with illiberal governments in the neighborhood” (ibid: 280), most notably through increased economic investment from and military cooperation with the PRC. Very little has changed since then, as “political space remains elusive and dominated by the monarchy and military” (Chambers and Waitoolkiat 2020: 149). Thailand's youth, however, have started fighting back. In February 2020, students organized demonstrations against dictatorial abuse of the legal system (namely, a court order to dissolve the main pro-democracy party) at university campuses across Thailand. Political scientist Jasmin Lorch (2020: 89) explains: “When the [Thai] Constitutional Court disbanded Future Forward [Party], student protests erupted on many campuses; young activists have since continued to demonstrate for democratic reforms.” Soon, their struggle would collide with those in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In April 2020, the Twitter war erupting over the Chinese boycott of Bright soon caught Taiwan's attention. Taiwanese blogger Emmy Hu (胡采蘋) was first to report on the conflict, noting that Thais were tweeting messages supporting Taiwan's independence to provoke their Chinese opponents.5 To make matters even worse, Beijing ramped up its political pressure to bar Taiwan—a leader in combatting COVID-19 transmission—from joining the World Health Assembly meeting (Chan 2020) in May 2020 amid the pandemic (despite its having been allowed to participate as an observer from 2009–2016 when President Ma Ying-jeou espoused rapprochement with China); the World Health Organization later not only blocked Taiwan's participation at subsequent COVID-19-related meetings in November 2020, but also appeared to have even censored the word “Taiwan” from any post to their Facebook page (AFP 2020b). Understandably, Taiwanese were incensed, and Taiwan's netizens took to Twitter to thank Thais for their support.6 Meanwhile, Hu's Chinese-language breakdown of #nnevvy was quickly reposted on Hong Kong's Reddit-like forum LIHKG;7 it was then further circulated to the city's invite-only underground protest networks on Telegram. Pro-democracy activists instantly recognized the potential for building an alliance and swiftly began tweeting #nnevvy memes in support of Thais.8 Like other hashtag campaigns, this approach “reflects a larger pattern of collective counterpublic activism that relies on virality as a strategy … with the goal of creating mass agitation of, and eventual shifts in, the status quo” (Jackson and Welles 2015: 934, 949). Within hours, the #MilkTeaAlliance, a Thai-Taiwanese-Hong Kongese meme network with millions of tweets, was formed.

Though this alliance might have originally appeared to lack political substance beyond the use of memes, it quickly morphed into a politically charged resistance network as it coincided with new backlash against the CCP in Thailand over the Mekong river, a trans-boundary waterway springing from the PRC-controlled Tibetan Plateau and flowing downstream to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the same week that this digital alliance was formed, new research surfaced indicating that Beijing had been limiting upstream flow for its own water reserves; droughts throughout mainland Southeast Asian nations appeared to be a direct result (Beech 2020). Angered by China's actions, Thai Twitter users began calling on Taiwan and Hong Kong to join them in censuring Beijing through the combined use of the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag with #StopMekongDam. And thus, as William Housley et al. (2018: 3) have elucidated, the “functional affordances” of hashtags (such as #nnevvy and #MilkTeaAlliance) on platforms like Twitter highlight “the (potential) relationships between posts and the development of activism through the interconnected actions of different users.”

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Mobile phone screenshot illustration of #MilkTeaAlliance (Reuters 2020).

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

Coincidentally, this digital alliance presages Joshua Wong's vision of a pan-Asian democratic resistance. Known as the face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Wong has long sought to build an intra-regional youth resistance network, for instance through his 2017 joint conference with key figures of Taiwan's Sunflower Movement (Hioe 2017) and his 2016 visit to Thailand, where he was scheduled to meet with Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, one of Thailand's most vocal (and threatened) student activists for democracy (Solomon 2017). A physical manifestation of the Hong Kong–Thai connection never came to fruition, as Wong was detained and deported by the Thai junta (Phoborisut 2019), an experience he described as “by far the scariest hours in my life” (Wong and Ng 2020: 238). However, in reflecting on the power of the #MilkTeaAlliance, Wong later wrote: “It is worth noting from the outset that the ‘Three Demands’ of Thailand's pro-democracy protesters are directly influenced by Hong Kong's very own ‘Five Demands’ during the 2019–2020 protests, showing that there are ideological affinities between the two movements and opening up the possibility of cross-national collaboration” (Wong 2020: 264–265). Similarly, Taiwanese activist and journalist Brian Hioe (2020b) writes: “Thailand doesn't face the threat of China in the way that Taiwan and Hong Kong have long shared. Yet Thai netizens, who are suffering under an autocratic government, made common cause with people in Taiwan and Hong Kong.” In our own work with activists during the 2019–2020 period, we observed a noticeable uptick in inter-referencing of hashtags and narrative framing, particularly among concerned students from Thailand and Hong Kong (as explained below).

In his #nnevvy Twitter thread,9 Wong again drew attention to his detainment and alluded to the connection between the PRC and Thai authoritarian regimes. Such intra-regional synergies against dictatorship offer promise for a growing number of postmaterialistic Asian youth (Lo and Loo 2018) who reject the self-justificatory bromides of strongmen who insist that representative democracy, freedom, and human rights are Western concepts—the hackneyed “Asian values” debate popularized in the 1990s (Freeman 1996). From Twitter, to Facebook, to Telegram and Signal, contemporary activists in the region have become adept at dodging censorship (AFP 2020a) and canvassing digital space for like-minded democrats—including solidarity with those from the PRC who similarly long for political change (Jun 2020).10

Implications of the #MilkTeaAlliance (1): Physical Expressions in Taiwan

On 18 July 2020, after COVID-19 transmissions appeared to be waning in Thailand, a group of university students in Bangkok (under the name Free Youth Movement เยาวชนปลดแอก) resumed their mobilization and “demanded the dissolution of the government, a new constitution and the end of threats to citizens” (Siani 2020: 159). They were also enraged by the disappearance (and likely murder) of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai dissident living in exile in Cambodia; the “event caused widespread disdain, drawing attention to the fate of other anti-monarchy exiles who had disappeared in previous years” (ibid). As a response to protests in Bangkok, on 2 August 2020 two Thai graduate students living in Taiwan hastily organized online to hold a physical gathering in front of the de facto Thai embassy in Taipei as a show of their solidarity with the demonstrations in Thailand. Approximately thirty Thai and Taiwanese demonstrators joined to show their support. A week later, after subsequent conversations among Thai and Taiwanese student activists, the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy (TATD) was born (private communication with TATD).

On 16 August TATD held a second protest at the Taipei Main Station, which attracted hundreds of demonstrators in a show of transnational solidarity with Thailand's struggle (Kasemsuk 2020). Using the Thai-language hashtag #ไทเปจะไม่ทน (#TaipeiHasHadEnough) and #MilkTeaAlliance, the students mobilized attendance through their Facebook page (@tatdnow) and on Twitter. International and domestic media in Taiwan covered the event, including video clips and discussion of this Taipei-specific hashtag on Thai national television that evening.11 The Guardian later reported that “In recent months an unexpected solidarity has developed between young protesters and activists across Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, at first online but increasingly now in protests on the streets, in law courts and in the corridors of power” (Ratcliffe et al. 2020, emphasis added). Exiled Thai scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun (2020a: 169) pinpoints this critical connection by noting that “The [Milk Tea] alliance effectively shifted online debates concerning critical hurdles against democratization toward street activism and political movements, led by the voices of young netizens”; as he goes on to note, even pro-reform demonstrators as far as Belarus were inspired by this online alliance in “their fight against the government of Alexander Lukashenko.” He also underscores the activism of Thai students in Taiwan as a key example of the spirit embodied by the #MilkTeaAlliance (Schaffar 2020: 8).

In August 2020, a Reuters report about TATD's activities noted: “This is the first physical expression of the #MilkTeaAlliance, said Thai student Akrawat Siripattanachok, 27, who helped organize the show of solidarity in Taipei joined by Hong Kong activists, a Chinese dissident and Taiwan students” (Tanakasempipat and Chow 2020). Singaporean democracy activist Roy Ngerng (鄞義林) also spoke at the event about the courage and hope Hong Kong and Thailand's student movements in 2019–2020 have instilled in young Singaporeans who want to see democratic change in their country. As TATD spokesperson Thachaporn Supparatanapinyo told us, the #MilkTeaAlliance

is a rallying point and hashtag that is already being used in artworks and mentioned in daily life to the point that people from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong feel that we can relate to one another as we suffer from a similar kind of authoritarianism. It is a digital-based people's movement that transcends physical and diplomatic borders. You do not have to be a certain ethnicity or from a certain place to use the term for your movement. (private communication)

After seeing media reports of TATD's protests in Taipei, overseas Thai students elsewhere began forming their own groups to organize physical demonstrations, such as ThaiEUDem, the Australian Alliance for Thai Democracy in Sydney, and the Association for Thai Democracy (ATD), USA, with members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, and New York.12 PK, a Thai student activist in Los Angeles, explained:

ATD formed in October 2020 in response to the police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Bangkok. Our main focus now is raising awareness and building alliances in the US. Some of us are reaching out to Black Lives Matter groups and others are connecting with Hong Kong groups. We believe that by framing our struggle for equality as a fight against an oppressive structure and a need to end police violence this resonates across our different contexts. (private communication)

In this way, the power of the #MilkTeaAlliance can be seen both in the intra-Asian symbolism at the root of its name (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand all have their versions of “milk tea”) and how this has been deployed as a useful online tool for connecting like-minded Asian pro-democracy activists outside the region.

A clear affinity with and belief in the power of regional solidarity as manifested in the #MilkTeaAlliance runs through the social-media-savvy tactics of the TATD student activists. TATD's demonstrations have been organized by a core membership of roughly ten Thai university students in Taiwan along with several Taiwanese and Hong Kong student activists who help them with Chinese-language communication, rally logistics, and connecting them with Taiwanese NGOs and sympathetic politicians. They are also supported by a larger informal network of Thai students, migrant workers, civil society groups, and other allies in Taiwan. TATD's core members range from very outspoken Thai student activists who publicly speak out at their rallies to more cautious Thai students who, largely due to understandable concerns about Thailand's draconian laws restricting criticism of the monarchy (Streckfuss 2020) and what could happen when they return home, prefer to support the pro-democracy movement in less visible ways (including social media and video content production, translation of press releases into Chinese and English, etc.). One example of their collaborative work—a physical expression of #MilkTeaAlliance sentiments—can be seen in assistance to TATD by Taiwanese student activist Khiam Lim (林謙), who recently formed the Taiwan Platform for Sustainable Democracy (臺灣民主永續平台), which “supports upstart democratic movements formed by international students” in Taiwan (McCartney 2020). Lim has been a key ally of the Thai students, and together with the Green Party facilitated an impressive press conference in October 2020 to raise awareness in Taiwan about Thailand's protests. The press conference included two elected members of Taiwan's parliament (Legislative Yuan), including one from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, as well as politicians from other political parties and a wide range of civil groups, all coming together to raise their voices in support of Thailand's student movement (Figure 3). Reflecting on the press conference in a segment aired on Taiwanese TV in December 2020, Tata Suwankanit, one of the Thai student leaders, stated that “Every (Taiwanese political) party basically, except the KMT, joined us and condemned the (Thai) government. We were just surprised and amazed. Wow, this would never happen in Thailand.”13

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Tibetan activist Tashi Tsering holding a #MilkTeaAlliance sign expressing solidarity with Thailand at a TATD press conference in Taipei, 22 October 2020 (photo: Adam K. Dedman).

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

Growing up in the age of social media, these students were exposed to unfiltered information about their country and have developed both a discerning “digital political literacy” and a comparative understanding of democratic struggle in Asia. Taiwan, as a successful Asian example of transformation from decades of authoritarian rule to a consolidated democracy (Schafferer 2020), both inspires their movement and offers them a safe physical space for freedom of expression. They are tired of the obsequious cultural deference to authoritarian structures that their education system taught them to accept, and are invigorated by the “affective communities of sense” (Callahan 2020) embodied in the digitally circulated images and intensities of the #MilkTeaAlliance.

Although the CCP is not the genesis of Southeast Asian authoritarianism, “China's increasing economic, political and military roles have the potential to … reduce the attractiveness of the democratic model” (Bünte 2020: 199–200). Thai student activists in 2020 have thus connected their struggle to those of Hong Kong and Taiwan by recognizing the CCP (and its support for the Thai military-derived government) as a common threat to democratic movements across Asia. As historian Patrick Jory (2017) clarifies, “a friendly military-led government in Thailand that keeps democratic forces at bay may suit China at a time when the US is working hard to enhance its relations with China's neighbours in the region.” Thai student activist Chotiphatphaisal agrees: “We also feel the threat from China in Thailand, so we know how people in Taiwan and Hong Kong feel. Even though the #MilkTeaAlliance is an abstract coalition, we are now connected by a common vision” (Yang 2020). One TATD member also noted: “There is power in numbers and we, as Asia's rising young generation, hope to stem the tide of dictatorship and show the world that the democratic values we believe in and more equal and just society we strive for is not ‘Western’ but a universal sentiment as people everywhere long for self-determination and greater freedom” (McLaughlin 2020). Such localizing of discourse about self-determination and accountable governance is a key rhetorical strategy that these student activists employ to “make moral and political interventions in the field of public culture” (Sun 2014: 243).

Implications of the #MilkTeaAlliance (2): Affective Resonances in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, opportunities to express solidarity with Thai protesters have been limited since the CCP's imposition of an oppressive National Security Law (香港國家安全法) on 30 June 2020, mere days before the Thai protesters returned to the streets in July. This sweeping new law explicitly criminalizes transnational activism and threatens to punish offenders with life imprisonment. Yet despite this, #MilkTeaAlliance solidarity continues to appear in glimpses throughout the city. On 19 October 2020, a small group of pro-democracy figures rallied in front of the Thai consulate to support protesters’ calls for royal reform and to condemn police brutality in Thailand (Yang 2020). The same weekend also saw an outpouring of support for Thai protesters on the online forum LIHKG and in the form of protest graffiti reading #StandWithThailand that appeared on the streets of Hong Kong (Kwan 2020). Across the city, pro-democracy businesses (collectively known as the “Yellow Economy”) put up and distributed #MilkTeaAlliance-themed postcards (these were observed personally by the authors). And on the now-rare occasions when Hong Kongers hold explicitly anti-government rallies, such as the 19 November 2020 march at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, protesters chanted “Stand with Thailand” and held up Thai protesters’ signature three-finger salute.14 In addition, exiled Hong Kong politicians Nathan Law (羅冠聰) and Sunny Cheung (張崑陽) also lent substantial support. Since the two had already fled the city to escape National Security Law charges, they were in a position to build Thai–Hong Kong transnational activism, and subsequently launched a global petition campaign to support democratic reforms in Thailand.15

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Hong Kong protesters holding up Thai protesters’ three-finger salute at an anti-government rally at Chinese University of Hong Kong, 19 Nov 2020 (photo: CUHK Campus Radio).

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

“When we look at the Thai protests we share very similar values, that is we fight for freedom and democracy,” exiled former Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui noted in a discussion about the #MilkTeaAlliance (Galloway 2020). This feeling of empowerment goes both ways. Thai student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal has expressed the idea that these solidarity efforts by Hong Kong activists “will help young people in Thailand to feel empowered and allow them to keep fighting in the streets” (Yang 2020). One material result of #MilkTeaAlliance solidarity has been Netiwit's work with eminent historian of China Jeffrey Wasserstrom to secure the rights to translate the latter's book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, into Thai. Reflecting on the power of the #MilkTeaAlliance, Wasserstrom (2021) explains: “it was no accident that expressions of sympathy for Hong Kong came from Thai activists and that expression of solidarity with and support for protesters in places such as Bangkok came from Hong Kong.”

Drawing on our own experiences and private communications with fellow activists, it is clear that the imposition of the National Security Law signified for many the death of dissent in Hong Kong. For Hong Kongers, the Thai movement erupted precisely at a time when protests at home became impossible. When tens of thousands of Thai protesters marched on the streets of Bangkok in October 2020, Hong Kong's internet saw a constant stream of photo collages juxtaposing scenes of resistance there with the city's own million-strong marches in 2019 (Figure 5). These juxtapositions may not serve a practical purpose, yet they create powerful affective resonances. While physical demonstrations in Hong Kong are on pause for the foreseeable future, these inter-referencing images suggest that the spirit of resistance lives on through our friends in Thailand.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Screenshot of a social media post from protest networking groups in Hong Kong on 17 October 2020, reading “Thailand, Hong Kong keep fighting!” (private communication).

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

What to Make of the #MilkTeaAlliance: Impacts and Future Directions

We have intentionally avoided the temptation to quantify the efficacy or “success” of an online movement like the #MilkTeaAlliance. The everyday practices of what Mona Lilja (2021) calls “constructive resistance” offers a more insightful and less temporally rigid framework for understanding the #MilkTeaAlliance: it “urges us to think of resistance in broader and more productive ways [as] … its effects cannot be measured in terms of direct and immediate outcomes” (Roland Bleiker in Lilja, 2021: ix–x). As activist-researchers embedded in this nascent movement, we are cognizant of the fact that “any evaluation of activism success will be open to challenge because individual participants and observers have different perspectives” (Joyce 2014: 84). We find the pressure to assess the #MilkTeaAlliance in definitive terms both premature and misguided. In her thesis on delineating “activism success,” which draws on the language of Latour, Mary Joyce (ibid: 86–87) injects a nuanced consideration into the desire to quantify. She notes:

while the challengers who initiate an activism effort may have a certain program that includes the goals they intend the activism effort to achieve and the benefits they hope to realize, constituents—even those that support the activism effort—may have anti-programs, alternative goals and meanings that may change [the] meaning and focus of the activism effort.

Seen through this lens, the #MilkTeaAlliance—as it has manifested itself in physical protests in Thailand, for example—can also be understood to have engendered intermediate goals beyond the ultimate aim of dismantling the country's authoritarian political structure. One striking example is the progress that Thai student activists have made in expanding public discourse about the monarchy and its stranglehold on the possibility of democratic change without meaningful reforms. Chachavalpongpun (2020c: 24) notes that “The students’ 10-point demand [for royal reforms such as “an end to the palace's intervention in politics and obliterating state propaganda on the monarchy”] sent shockwaves through the Thai state” after students broke the taboo on frank discussion about the monarchy by openly airing it on a public stage in September 2020. A breakthrough like this exemplifies what Donatella della Porta (2020: 559) refers to as “cracking” or “the production of sudden ruptures” in protests. While not the end goal of sedimenting political change (such as democratization), cracking signifies the emergence of the critical juncture needed to prime the social milieu for eventual sedimentation.

Such unprecedented cognitive rupture among a growing swath of Thai society lends credence to James Taylor's view that recent political mobilization against Thailand's ruling elite demonstrates a powerful case-in-point of philosopher Henri “Lefebvre's notion of autogestion [which] implie[s] an inordinate mass awakening whereby a social group decides not to accept passively its conditions of existence …” (Taylor 2021: 13). It is precisely this kind of individual “awakening” that gives rise to “the self-motivated (though not necessarily self-centered) sharing of already internalized or personalized ideas, plans, images, and resources with others” (Bennett and Segerberg 2012: 753), and thereby spawns the critical “connective action” in social movements. The #MilkTeaAlliance and its emphasis on a common struggle against autocratic governance nourishes expansive autogestion and the potential for connective action across Asia. The transnational nature of this digital movement expands our understanding of connective action in social movements as typically localized or domestic in orientation. This can already be seen, for example, in digital and physical expressions of protest against the February 2021 military putsch in Myanmar (Burma), which have quickly included the #MilkTeaAlliance, along with their trending #SaveMyanmar hashtag and related gestures of dissent, such as the three-finger salute adopted from Thailand's protests in 2020 (Mahtani and Nachemson 2021). In the aftermath of this military takeover, Thai social media users quickly welcomed Myanmar as the newest “member” of the #MilkTeaAlliance. A year after its emergence, the #MilkTeaAlliance continues to resonate across Asia. Between April 2020 and March 2021, the hashtag was used more than 9 million times and its widespread deployment has led to Twitter designing a branded #MilkTeaAlliance emoji for its one-year anniversary in April 2021, similar to other supercharged hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate.16

Beyond the preliminary qualitative data that we have provided on #MilkTeaAlliance-inspired groups like TATD, future research to enhance our understanding of digital impacts on physical protests among Asian youth could include detailed discourse analysis or quantitative examinations of the digitally dense metadata in multiple languages of #MilkTeaAlliance and related hashtags across various platforms. Future studies might also develop more nuanced activist demographics and explore local dynamics behind pro-democracy movements in the region, including the ways in which inter-referencing practices like the #MilkTeaAlliance afford opportunities to leverage benchmarking against regional best practices. To this end, Thai political scientist Janjira Sombatpoonsiri (2020) asks: “Why do some young democracies [previously Thailand] succumb to autocratization by former autocratic networks but some [Taiwan] have survived it?” One preliminary hint she offers is that in Taiwan, many political outsiders (including social movement activists and NGO staff) have evolved into hybridizers (activists-turned-legislators, reform commissioners, government ministers, etc.) furthering substantive democratic change, an indispensable lever in political transformation that remains largely elusive in Thailand (and has been effectively blocked by the CCP in Hong Kong). Thus, the various ways in which Taiwan functions both symbolically and pragmatically for these activists as an Asian paragon of successful democratization remains another fertile area for future research.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Screenshot of Thai Twitter user announcing, “It's time to welcome our newest member to the group.”

Citation: Contention 9, 1; 10.3167/cont.2021.090105

Digital Resistance to Authoritarianism: An Activist Call for Solidarity

Through what Hong Kong scholar Pang Laikwan (2017: 71) argues is the “intense mingling of the private and the public, social media both perpetuates biases and cultivates freedom.” Online spaces of public debate elide neutrality; romanticizing “moral superiority” or feigning “political purity” in “Twitter wars” is never that simple. Disinterested spectatorship is a chimera. As scholars deeply involved with the movements we have discussed herein, we acknowledge our positionality and eschew the intellectual mirage of “objective” impartiality.

Seen through a decolonial praxis of digitally dismantling the totalizing discourse of the world's largest authoritarian regime, the pan-Asian #MilkTeaAlliance affords us hopeful glimmers of epistemological rupture. Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the twentieth century's most important theorists of discourse and political resistance, inveighed against singularizing voices of nationalism—the precursor to digital “cancel culture” that he termed “monoglossical dominance”—and believed that such semantic straitjackets must be unraveled (Robinson 2011). By the same token, to realize the decolonization of self-recognition—whether it be in colonial Africa, Hong Kong, or Taiwan (Chen 2014)—the political philosopher Frantz Fanon argued that we must resist tethering these struggles to a “retrograde orientation towards a subjective affirmation of a precolonial past” and instead ground it “in the peoples’ struggle against the material structure of colonial rule in the present” (Coulthard 2014: 132).

The Lausan Collective, a group of activists and scholars engaged in decolonial left perspectives from Hong Kong and Taiwan, recently argued that “In the face of the vast power of the CCP, Hong Kong has no leverage or resources to stand alone and survive” (Yehua 2020). Thus, under such conditions, the insoluble “dissonance between the longed for collective subjectivity of a self-governing Hong Kong polity and the geopolitical denial of this aspiration, creates a desire for actions that are perceived as meaningful in a context where the overall goal is seen as virtually impossible” (Cooper 2018: 104, emphasis added). Understood through this prism, the real power of the #MilkTeaAlliance is essentially phenomenological: its political puissance is captured in the ways it is activated by activists across Asia—both as a visibility strategy for generating transnational alliances and as an affective haven where activists can retreat for support and solidarity—not in expeditiously toppling dictators. Ultimately, the power of hashtag-organized movements like the #MilkTeaAlliance is nurtured via “an affective and technological activist assemblage that links social media conversations to the formation and practices of movement organisations” (Rentschler 2017: 579).

We echo communication scholars Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles (2020: 185), who in their book on hashtag activism “push back against the notion promulgated by some that the real work of change only happens offline. Networks and narratives matter, and both are built digitally and corporally.” Whether digital or physical, acts of solidarity with the democracy struggles in Hong Kong and Thailand, and elsewhere in the region, can and should be interpreted as meaningful, even while we resist overly idealizing the #MilkTeaAlliance as some imagined panacea against authoritarianism. What constitutes meaningful action to Hong Kongers, Thais, and Burmese struggling for an ever-elusive form of self-determination takes on different valences than it does for Taiwanese, whose focus is on defending their freedoms from a trigger-ready aggressor. The collective consciousness binding them together is a conviction that “democratization is the key task of decolonization that connects society and state and turns the citizenry into an authentic community capable of forming collective will” (Wu 2021: 63). To this end, the #MilkTeaAlliance is made up of diverse actors combatting disparate domestic contexts, yet their solidarity manifests in a common disdain for autocratic repression in general and for the CCP's authoritarian expansionism in particular. Brian Hioe (2020), in a recent rumination on activist solidarity, points to the generative quality of legitimacy-building through a praxis of inter-referencing. He concludes: “I don't know how movements across disparate borders, facing different but parallel challenges, can draw from each other. The #MilkTeaAlliance phenomenon, which began online, begins to show the way.” Sombatpoonsiri agrees: “I think this #MilkTeaAlliance is a good example that this international solidarity can be tangible, and perhaps this is the only way to defend democracy from global autocratization” (Fenn 2020).

Despite the pessimism that we as democracy activist-researchers find tempting, we also find strength in the fact that globally, “mass protests [have] contribute[d] to substantial political change and democratization in more than twenty-two countries” over the past decade (Bünte 2020: 194). Thus, as the colonial present mustered by the CCP descends upon Hong Kong in the form of a draconian National Security Law and intensifies its “bellicose nationalism” (Liu 2012: 64) toward Taiwan, solidarity with Asia's decolonial and democratic movements in the here and now becomes all the more important. To tolerate an ethnonationalist ontology of Han = Chinese = PRC and “sacred territory,” or junta doublespeak like “Thai-style democracy”—whether out of willful apologetics or defeatist geopolitical calculations—is both to green-light an authoritarian framing of Asia's present and to catapult it into the future. Ultimately, in the digitally saturated present, the representational enfranchisement of Taiwan and Hong Kong—how we narrate and allow them to narrate themselves—can only materialize when Chinese colonialist claims to “affective sovereignty” over Taiwanese and Hong Kongese lives are challenged and sustained by a global, nonpartisan movement with digital finesse, physical mobilization, and a democratic compass.

Acknowledgements

We would like to express our gratitude and admiration for the courageous Hong Kong and Thai student activists who continue working tenaciously for democratic change. They have warmly embraced us as researchers in solidarity with their movements. Adam would like to acknowledge the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Taiwan) for providing 12 months of funding to conduct fieldwork in 2020 as a Taiwan Fellow. The beauty of Taiwan's democracy is that it fosters robust public debate without censorship. We would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, Giovanni Travaglino (Contention, Editor-in-Chief), Charlie Yi Zhang, and Ying-kit Chan for their helpful comments and collegial support. Finally, as this article goes to publication, Sean Turnell, an Australian scholar-activist Adam befriended in Thailand over a decade ago, has been detained and arbitrarily charged by the military junta in Myanmar. Our thoughts are with him and the Burmese people tenaciously resisting the brutal Tatmadaw regime.

Notes

1

As Shui-Yi Sharon Yam (2019: 148) explains, “Selected by a small committee of 1,200 members handpicked by Beijing, the chief executive of Hong Kong has always been seen by the Hong Kong public as a proxy of the Chinese government.”

2

See (in Chinese): https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/breakingnews/3025027 (accessed 30 March 2021).

3

Under contract with Duke University Press—quote from pre-publication manuscript.

4

See (in Chinese): https://talk.ltn.com.tw/article/paper/434606 (accessed 30 March 2021).

5

See (in Chinese): https://www.facebook.com/emmy.hu/posts/10222578180629175 (accessed 30 March 2021).

7

See (in Chinese): https://lihkg.com/thread/1968588/page/1 (accessed 30 March 2021).

9

See link in Note 5.

10

Yam (2019: 194) writes that “While Hongkongers are not completely misguided in their anxiety and fear for their political future, when the fear is superimposed onto the bodies of mainland immigrants, it forecloses room for them to build a coalition with mainlanders who also seek to resist the Chinese state regime.” Having worked with a growing number of PRC citizens who support Hong Kong's struggle for democracy and Taiwan's autonomy, we reiterate Yam's important call to forge alliances with reform-minded Chinese citizens.

11

See: https://tinyurl.com/tatdtv (accessed 30 March 2021).

13

See: https://tinyurl.com/tatdtaiwan (accessed 30 March 2021).

16

Personal communication with Twitter's Public Policy team, 26 March 2021.

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Contributor Notes

Adam K. Dedman has spent the past twenty years studying and working in Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan. He is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne and was affiliated with National Chengchi University in Taipei as a Taiwan Fellow in 2020. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0707-7364

Autumn Lai (pseudonym) is an activist from China who has worked in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Contention

The Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Protest

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    Mobile phone screenshot of Bright's apology (Twitter, 10 April 2020).

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    Mobile phone screenshot illustration of #MilkTeaAlliance (Reuters 2020).

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    Tibetan activist Tashi Tsering holding a #MilkTeaAlliance sign expressing solidarity with Thailand at a TATD press conference in Taipei, 22 October 2020 (photo: Adam K. Dedman).

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    Hong Kong protesters holding up Thai protesters’ three-finger salute at an anti-government rally at Chinese University of Hong Kong, 19 Nov 2020 (photo: CUHK Campus Radio).

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    Screenshot of a social media post from protest networking groups in Hong Kong on 17 October 2020, reading “Thailand, Hong Kong keep fighting!” (private communication).

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    Screenshot of Thai Twitter user announcing, “It's time to welcome our newest member to the group.”

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