Young campaigners for democracy across Asia are increasingly turning to international support on social media via the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag, issuing calls for support as protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong face off with authoritarian regimes.
"I [believe the] #MilkTeaAlliance could create a “pan-Asia” grassroots movement that would draw more attention to social causes in Asia," Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella movement, tweeted on Wednesday.
As he did so, Thai student activist Francis Bunkueanun Paothong was getting ready to issue a "call to arms" via the same hashtag, as police began an operation targeting protesters ahead of a major demonstration planned for Wednesday.
"Dear people of the Milk Tea Alliance," he said via a video statement posted to Twitter.
"Half an hour ago, Thai police began operations to forcibly remove protesters preparing themselves for tomorrow's main protest. They used tactics far beyond [what] a human being can bear," Francis said.
"I come to you with nothing to offer but our unconditional support to our brothers and sisters overseas, who are now engaged in the fight, the revolution, of their lifetimes."
"This is a call to arms to everyone who cherishes the ideas of liberty and justice for all," he added, calling on allies to "stand up to the tyranny and authoritarianism that we are all facing."
Messages of support were quick to appear, many of them apparently from Hong Kong.
"Please stay safe! This is just like what happened in Hong Kong in the past year," user @sajujuandjuju wrote in reply. "Hongkongers will always support our Thai friends. Please let us know how we can help!"
"Hkers always stand with Thailand!! Fighting and be safe," another user wrote.
The #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag took off earlier this year, during an international flame war between China's "Little Pink" pro-Communist Party commentators and residents of Thailand, Hong Kong, and the democratic island of Taiwan, which recently hailed India as part of the Milk Tea Alliance for its flying of the island's flag to mark its Oct. 10 National Day.
Se Hoon Kim, a Korean-American student at the University of Rochester in New York State, said the key concept is resistance to authoritarian rule and influence, in particular that of the Chinese Communist Party.
"The Milk Tea Alliance has become a symbol for us that the Chinese Communist Party's tactics around the world are no longer effective and that people have begun to question them," Kim told RFA. "It also symbolizes people's frustration with what the Chinese Communist Party is doing."
Singaporean social activist Roy Ngerng, who now lives in Taiwan, said Beijing is increasingly regarded as a threat to regional democratic institutions, as it seeks to extend its influence and policies far beyond its national borders.
"If China continues to be strong, our governments will think they needn't bother democratizing, because China is there in the background, controlling things," he said.
He said he has felt the threat of China's brand of governance all the more keenly since moving to Taiwan, which lives under the threat of invasion by the People's Republic of China, which has never controlled the island, yet claims its territory.
For Ngerng, the Milk Tea Alliance is an online platform for young people across the region to support each other's political actions, and to show that they don't fear Beijing.
In its human rights report for Asia earlier this year, Amnesty International noted widespread suppression of freedom of expression and assembly across the region during 2019.
Yet protest movements led by young people continue to emerge.
Hong Kong-American student Joyce Ho said young people need international cooperation to prevent their home countries from "becoming the next Hong Kong or the next Tibet."
"The world will be ours one day and mustn't be taken over by regimes that want to control us," said Ho, who founded the online platform Project Black Mask HK calling on international supporters to wear black masks in support of the protest movement.
Ho told a global anti-communist rally in Washington on Oct. 1 that the world is fighting to defend freedom everywhere, not just in Hong Kong, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party recently imposed a draconian national security law targeting peaceful dissent and critics of the government anywhere in the world.
"The younger generation is more politically aware and seeks a deeper political awareness and concern about what our world will look like in future," Ho said.
The #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag was trending on Twitter in April, during the meme war with China's Little Pinks, and again as social media users from India rallied to support Taiwan's bid for international inclusion in the face of China's insistence it remain diplomatically isolated.
According to the island's Central News Agency, when Taiwan was trying to garner global support to join the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May, nearly half the tweets in favor came out of India, leading to further memes including the country in the Milk Tea Alliance.
Support for Taiwan from India
Pro-Taiwan sentiment in India was further fueled by the June 16 clashes between Chinese and Indian troops along a stretch of their shared border, sparking a flurry of anti-China memes from social media accounts in India.
"The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has since had to enter damage control mode, deleting the incident from state-run media pages and social media sites," CNA reported at the time.
It said repeated incursions by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) jets into Taiwan's airspace had given new life to the Milk Tea Alliance on social media.
In April, a row erupted under the hashtag after Little Pinks took issue with a tweet from Bright, the star of hit Thai TV show 2gether, who seemed to imply Hong Kong was a separate country from China.
Thai actress Weeraya also drew their ire by suggesting the coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, prompting Chinese netizens to threaten to boycott Thai soaps and not to travel to the country as tourists after the pandemic.
Thai users hit back with video of Chinese tourists piling their plates and shoving each other at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and multiple references to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, including the "Tank Man" image in a number of guises, including an impromptu sculpture made from fast food.
The flame war quickly drew the attention of other Twitter users tired of being targeted by Little Pinks, who need to use a banned VPN to evade their own government's Great Firewall of censorship, and whose comments often include the insult "ni ma sile" (NMSL), meaning "your mother is dead."
Users from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and India piled into the battle.
Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan commented at the time that the Little Pinks may appear to be acting as individuals, but are backed and paid for by the CCP.
Reported by Mia Ping-Chieh Chen for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.