US House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2-3 sparked a diplomatic outcry and may well have long-term implications for security in the region. Less noticed, however, is how the event has also rekindled online clashes between Chinese netizens and those in the region who sympathize with Taiwanese independence struggles.
Pelosi is the highest serving member of the US government to visit Taiwan in 25 years. While China was undoubtedly the main focus of her political message, Pelosi went beyond Taiwan to include human rights and democracy in general. She met with human rights defenders and also said in her speech that “America’s resolve to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains unwavering.”
This framing has implications beyond immediate diplomatic or security concerns. By establishing the underlying link between Chinese foreign policy on the one hand, and democracy and human rights on the other, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan also reinvigorated the Milk Tea Alliance – a transnational movement based on solidarity among supporters of democracy in the region.
Coined in 2020, the term Milk Tea Alliance was born out of online feuds between Chinese and Thai netizens over the sovereignty of Taiwan and Hong Kong. The online clashes soon spread to other issues related to China’s undemocratic practices, such as human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet. The term was quickly integrated into the language and identity of several ongoing pro-democracy movements in the region, including in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and later in Myanmar after the February 2021 coup.
Sharing similar experiences under authoritarian regimes, protesters in these countries began to show their support for protesters in other countries and formed a loose transnational online network. Milk tea, a popular drink in these countries, was used as a symbol of unity among those calling for human rights and democracy in the region.
The movement had lost momentum following the end of mass protests in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar. However, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan gave him new life, with the hashtags #MilkTeaAlliance, #ไต้หวัน (#Taiwan), and #TaiwanIsaCountry trending on Twitter, especially in Thailand.
The spark came on Wednesday, the day of the visit, when the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok posted on its Facebook page an appeal for support from the Thai government, as a “friend of China…for support China’s efforts in protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity…and great mission of reunification.The Thai Foreign Ministry has also officially announced its endorsement of the one China policy.
In response to these developments, the online world, especially Twitter, has witnessed a number of fights between Chinese and Thai netizens. The language used in these tweets was drawn from a variety of sources, including US-based anti-China rhetoric. In response to several tweets written in broken Thai claiming that Taiwan is part of China, Thai netizens, believing them to be Chinese netizens, retaliated by claiming that the only thing belonging to China was COVID-19.
Social media activists also tapped into pop culture, demonstrating the Milk Tea Alliance’s youthful demographic. Memes have been used to delegitimize Chinese nationalists’ claim to Taiwan sovereignty, including mocker Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh and comparing From Chinese nationalists to Hela, a villain from the recent movie “Thor.” Some satirical cards describing China as “Western Taiwan” Where “Southern Mongoliaand “North Hong Kong” are also trending.
These posts were retweeted and endorsed by netizens across the region using the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance. In thanks, the Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association tweeted an illustration of the Milk Tea Alliance to thank Thai netizens for showing solidarity against the one China policy.
While military exercises and diplomatic maneuverings have rightly captured the attention of most analysts, they should not lose sight of developments on social media. While some have argued that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was nothing more than a symbolic victory, this symbolism has been felt not only among Taiwanese, but also shared with those in the region who are fighting for democracy and freedom. This in turn could further embolden their movements.
These online activities between pro and anti-China netizens should not be seen as just a fight on the Internet. Social media enables the sharing of ideas and the formation of solidarity, especially in countries where authoritarian governments routinely punish street protests. These platforms could also provide citizens with a way to pressure governments to adjust their foreign policy, which has traditionally been an elite concern. But for now, how things develop online and how it affects regional politics remains an open question.