When the Japanese Government announced a historic package of 220 billion yen (HK$17 billion) as an incentive for firms to shift production back to Japan in early April, the US followed by promising similar help to American companies who wanted to move out of China and back home.
Shortly after, a most unlikely coalition called the “Milk Tea Alliance” was formed. It was also an attempt to combat China’s immense influence, but rather than being a macro-politics decision made at the top, it was a self-initiated and spontaneous bottom-up effort.
For the first time, netizens from Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian countries, joined forces to hit back at China’s huge online army in an internet war.
It all started with a retweet, as all good drama does these days. A Thai TV series called “2gether” had been gaining an enormous number of fans internationally, especially in China. In March, the CCP mouthpiece Global Times even welcomed the popularity of the show in China as a sign of improved “cultural communication between China and Thailand.”
But an online storm began when the 2gether star, Vachirawit “Bright” Chivaaree, reposted a Twitter picture listing Hong Kong as a “country”. Predictably, he was bombarded by Chinese netizens with attacks, threats, and vows to boycott his show, just as happened to many other celebrities who offended Chinese fans by implying that Hong Kong or Taiwan were not part of China.
Just like the others, Bright quickly apologised, claiming that he retweeted the photo without having read the caption properly. But this was not enough to appease Chinese netizens, who dug up a social media post by his girlfriend Weeraya “Nnevvy” Sukaram from as far back as 2017, revealing she might have once insinuated that Taiwan was its own nation.
When Chinese netizens attacked Thailand for being “backwards” and “poor”, Thai netizens replied: “Our country is poor, but your country is pooh!” This referred to Winnie the Pooh, who is banned in China because of memes comparing the cartoon character to Xi Jinping.
While the Chinese tried to cause offence by criticising the Thai government for corruption, gleeful Thai netizens only responded with agreement: “Say it louder!”
To the now-classic Chinese insult “NMSL” (Your Mum is Dead), Thai youngsters laughed that they had at least 20 mothers, taking the opportunity to poke fun at their own king’s rumoured collection of mistresses.
And when told their view on Taiwan and Hong Kong stemmed from their lack of knowledge of Chinese history, Thai netizens simply retorted: “You mean Tiananmen Square?” in reference to censorship of the 1989 massacre.
Soon, netizens from Hong Kong and Taiwan started using the hashtag #nnevvy to aid their Thai supporters. The #MilkTeaAlliance was proclaimed, earning its name from the three nation’s famous iced milk teas, a beverage which is not a tradition in China.
This quickly led to another online movement #StopMekongDam – Thais took the opportunity to solicit help from their new allies to raise awareness about of the destruction done to the Mekong River by 11 enormous dams in China.
A recent study showed that the large amounts of water were being held back by the Chinese on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, contributing to droughts and agricultural disasters in Thailand as well as countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Netizens from each of the Southeast Asian nations started to join the new online alliance.
The word spread like wildfire, petitions were started and signed even by Asians who did not reside in the affected countries, and the use of the hashtag #StopMekongDam exploded on every social media platform overnight.
Meanwhile, Filipinos used the hashtag #nnevvy to attack the Chinese Government’s on-going attempts to stake claim to disputed ocean territories near the Philippines.
Though this political battle has been conducted entirely online, its significance cannot be overlooked. For Thais, it is the first transnational geopolitical internet war they have engaged in, as pointed out by Thai political scientist Prajak Kongkirati.
Netizens from this small Asian nation not only surprised the formidable Chinese social media warriors with their impressive sense of humour, they also showed the world that Thais are free-thinking individuals who have no fear of criticising those in power, unlike their Chinese counterparts, who seem to be blindly committed to backing their government at all cost.
The forming of this new “Pan-Asia Alliance” – as coined by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong – also indicated an ongoing frustration in the region regarding China’s influence and actions that affected less powerful countries on the ground level. The Milk Tea Alliance was an attempt to keep China’s unmatchable power in check, and it demonstrated the need for smaller nations to unite and cooperate. This unexpected internet war reflected a long-felt need to counter the unbalanced power dynamics in Asia.
The peculiar newfound solidarity between Asian netizens even caused enough impact for the Chinese Embassy in Thailand to issue a lengthy response in Thai, Chinese and English.
Besides unsurprisingly reiterating the “One China Principle”, it also labelled the “recent online noise” as merely “the scheme by some particular people” to sabotage friendship between Chinese and Thais, stressing that it does not represent “the mainstream public opinion of the Thai people.”
How ironic that the Chinese Government still claimed to know what Thais believed, when this very conflict between netizens of the two nations had clearly shed light on China’s shocking level of disconnect with the world.
What Chinese netizens thought would be insulting to Thais “were in fact just popular talking points among progressive young Thais nowadays,” said James Buchanan, a Thai politics researcher at the City University of Hong Kong. The Embassy’s notion of “China and Thailand as one family” was of course quickly rejected by Thai netizens.
The real cultural gap between China and other Asian countries like Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan has nothing to do with iced beverages, but arises from the deep-rooted conviction that loving one’s country does not require blind loyalty to its current government.
This is a belief obviously not shared by Chinese netizens who make the effort to climb over the firewall to join the conversation, just to defend the very government which set up the firewall to limit their freedom.
While angry Chinese netizens boasted of their country’s wealth and influence, those from the Milk Tea Alliance instead showed off their free-thinking skills and their awareness of world politics.
This online war has sadly reflected the way seven decades of one-party dictatorship have succeeded in suffocating in China’s new generation the ability to think critically and individually.
If the Chinese are genuinely interested in building friendships with their fellow Asians, they need to understand that getting bombarded with aggressive nationalistic comments like “China #1!!!” is just not our cup of tea.