Milk tea against China

From Burma to Hong Kong, a social media movement unites the democratic struggle in Asia

3 min
A protester gives a three-finger salute before a line of riot police holding roses given to them by demonstrators in Rangoon, Burma

BeijingBurmese youths fighting against the military coup d'état are the latest to join a pan-Asian movement for democracy that has sprung up on the Internet: the Milk Tea Alliance. With the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance they post on Twitter videos of demonstrations in Burma, reports of arrests or disappearances, calls for rallies, sentences against activists and many messages of solidarity. Social networks have become a great tool for the struggle of young people protesting in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and now also in Burma. With this hashtag, which emerged a year ago, they share information, advice and create a community, in a movement that brings together different mobilisations but whose common goal is the defense of freedom and democracy.

The massive demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019, led by students to demand more democracy and denounce Beijing's interference, were mirrored to some extent in the student protests against the Thai government in 2020. And since February, the coup d'état in Burma has brought to the streets a whole generation calling for the consolidation of democracy and seemingly unafraid of repression which has already killed at least 810 demonstrators. The protest in Burma immediately imitated the three fingers raised sign of the anti-monarchy protests in Thailand, which had borrowed it, in fact, from the film The Hunger Games. In turn, they joined the online #MilkTeaAlliance movement.

The Milk Tea Alliance shows the power of social media among young people and the great potential of the internet as a tool of connection and social struggle for societies with authoritarian regimes. The repression in Burma, the police violence in Hong Kong or the collapse of the hospitals in Wuhan at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic would have been silenced without social networks, which allow a live broadcast on the internet. Governments are aware of this power and in Burma the military regime has tried to control access to the internet, as well as banning several social networks. In China they are years ahead and the popularly known as the "Great Wall of Internet" prevents access to content that the government considers dangerous and prohibits Western services or applications such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, or Gmail.

Last April, when it was a year since the emergence of the movement, Twitter dedicated a special emoji as a tribute: it is a cup of tea with a straw on a background with three shades of brown that represent the different types of milk tea consumed in the region. The emoji appears automatically when typing the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance in English, Thai, Burmese, Chinese and Korean.

The platform claims to have seen more than 11 million tweets with the hashtag in the last year. The new emoji aims to recognise the pro-democracy movement and put it on the same level as #MeToo, to denounce abuse against women, or #BlackLivesMatter, which originally denounced police violence against African-Americans.

Anti-Chinese origin

The name Milk Tea Alliance came about by chance in April 2020 as a result of a confrontation between Internet users. Tweets by a Thai actor, popularly known as Bright, and his model partner referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent countries were fiercely contested by Chinese nationalists. The episode sparked a fierce confrontation between fans of the actors and Chinese patriots, who called for a boycott of the two stars. From comments, memes and jokes, they turned to insults and threats, which gave rise to a movement against Chinese authoritarianism.

The name that is adopted comes from a common feature between China and the rest of the countries in the region, for which milk tea is understood as an element of common recognition. It is not consumed in China, where it is drunk on its own, but it is consumed in other Southeast Asian countries that have been in contact with the West and its ideas.