BEIJING – How do you take your tea?
For many in Southeast Asia, the response is sweet, milky, and with a hint of politics.
From Myanmar to Hong Kong, young people eager for democracy come up against increasingly authoritarian regimes and put their struggles online around a unifying and popular regional drink, tea with milk.
Served frozen, sweetened or accompanied by tapioca balls, the drink has become the symbol of a virtual solidarity movement, said Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong and a supporter of the so-called Milk Tea Alliance.
“One of the hallmarks of the Milk Tea Alliance is that we are kind of bonded by common values - the values of the pursuit of democracy, the values of the pursuit of freedom,” Law said.
Although not a “concrete network”, the online campaign has become a booster of support, he added, reducing the distance between people defending democracy across borders.
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The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance was born when an online dispute erupted in April 2020 after nationalist Chinese netizens criticized a popular Thai actor for sharing comments referring to Hong Kong as an independent country, offending Chinese sentiments. Fans of the actor then billed, loosely coalescing around the hashtag to defend it.
The online movement has since grown and been co-opted by millions of pro-democracy activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar and even India. Many of them also popularized the “three-fingered salute” from the movie “The Hunger Games” as a symbol of their struggle.
Democracy is going through turbulent times in the region.
In Myanmar, a deadly crackdown is underway amid a military coup as millions continue to protest the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian head of government, who has been elected during a landslide in November.
Suu Kyi and other officials are still detained in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
International calls for his release and for democratic standards to be upheld in recent weeks – more than 550 protesters have been killed, according to human rights groups on the ground. The Biden administration has restricted US trade with the country and issued sanctions against those linked to the military.
“I get scared every time I go out,” said Khin, 31, a protester from Yangon, whose last name has been withheld due to the current risks the protesters face. “We can be arrested anytime, sent to jail anytime, or we can be killed anytime.”
Khin called the military crackdown a “disaster” and said young people were forced to “fight for the future”, online and offline.
Using the Wi-Fi at a friend’s house to talk to NBC News, Khin said internet outages were common and they tried to limit communications.
The Milk Tea Alliance has given activists like her “courage” and uplifted morale, she said.
“Sometimes we’re tired, you know, we feel hopeless… because we’re human,” Khin said. “But every time we see the Milk Tea Alliance supporting us and trending us on Twitter … it energizes us and lifts us up.”
The alliance also shared concrete tactics, she added. Protesters in Myanmar are learning from those in Hong Kong to wear gas masks, medical kits and umbrellas during protests or to write blood groups on their arms in case they are hospitalized.
The common scourge of growing authoritarianism in the region has galvanized solidarity, said Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, 39, a nonprofit worker and political activist in Taipei.
Young digital natives are alarmed by the “threat of a democratic recession,” said Ling, whose family is from Singapore, and China’s increasingly assertive behavior is of particular concern.
“The Milk Tea Alliance … also reflects resistance against a common threat from authoritarian China that is not favorable to our cause for more freedoms,” Ling said, urging the United States and the Europe not to take a back seat to strengthen democracy in Asia. .
“There is only a small window of opportunity here to defend democracy in the world before it closes,” he added.
Chinese authorities have rejected the alliance in the past.
“People who are for Hong Kong independence or Taiwan independence often get along online, this is nothing new. Their conspiracy will never succeed,” the spokesperson said last year. from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian.
President Joe Biden has made the defense of democracy a feature of his political platform, promising to host the first world summit on democracy.
With relations between Beijing and Washington growing increasingly strained, Biden told reporters at the White House last month that he would not let China outshine America as the most powerful country in the world. Chinese leader Xi Jinping “doesn’t have a democratic bone – with a tiny bone in his body,” Biden said.
Beijing retaliated, saying China followed “a people-centered philosophy,” according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“China has, after long-term exploration, found a good path to development. We are confident in this path – we will relentlessly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” she said.
China’s own online army is fighting back – often with real consequences.
Many nationalist internet users are mobilizing to defend Beijing against the Milk Tea Alliance, which they see “as a criticism of the Chinese Communist Party regime,” said Hannah Bailey, researcher on Chinese online censorship at the Institute. University of Oxford Internet.
“There is a general trend over the past decade that the Chinese state has really moved from the basis of its legitimacy on its economic performance … to a shift to a more nationalistic base for its legitimacy,” a- she declared.
Virtual pressure from Chinese internet users led to the boycott of Western fashion brands, such as H&M and Nike, last month. Previously, the National Basketball Association and Disney’s live-action film “Mulan” have also been targeted with online campaigns.
In some ways, the heated online exchanges are an extension of Beijing’s so-called Wolf Warrior’s style of international diplomacy, said Bailey – in which the country with the world’s second-largest economy has positioned itself more assertively. on the world stage.
Law, the Hong Kong activist, who fled to Britain last year after Beijing gained greater political control over its homeland, said democracy in the region was in decline and ” systematic repression “was rife.
But the alliance is not just about curbing China’s influence, he added. It is also a broader tool to ward off “authoritarian governments and brutal regimes”.
“We are all fighting for the same thing,” he said. “Democracy, which is a common value, a universal value.”
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing; Adela Suliman reported from London.