On Thursday, the social media company Twitter announced that it had launched an emoji representing the Milk Tea Alliance, in a gesture of support to the online movement that brings together pro-democracy activists across East and Southeast Asia.
The emoji features a cut against a backdrop of three shades of brown, corresponding to the colors of milk tea in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and now automatically appears in any tweet featuring the hashtag in English, Thai, Korean, and several other Asian languages.
“To celebrate the first anniversary of the #MilkTeaAlliance we designed an emoji featuring 3 different types of milk tea colors from regions where the Alliance first formed online,” the social media company tweeted from its Twitter Public Policy account.
The Alliance was born last year out of a social media spat between nationalistic Chinese netizens and the Thai actors Vachirawit Chivaaree and Weeraya Sukaram, who came under fire over social media posts describing Hong Kong and Taiwan as independent nations. The fierce online fracas quickly drew in the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, whose ill-advised statements on the controversy only inflamed the battle further.
The Milk Tea Alliance moniker was quickly adopted by activists in Hong Kong, then emerging from months of pro-democracy protests against the encroaching power of the Chinese government, and in Thailand, where a youth-led protest movement took to the street in mid-2020, seeking constitutional changes and curbs to the powers of the country’s monarchy.
When protests erupted in Myanmar on February 1 of this year, the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag also began to trend in that country, driven by a flight of Myanmar netizens to Twitter after the military regime temporarily shut off access to Facebook, the country’s most popular social network.
“We have seen more than 11 million tweets featuring the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag over the past year,” Twitter said in its announcement, which prompted the hashtag to trend in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan.
The Milk Tea Alliance has since solidified itself as a loose organizing rubric for pro-democracy activists across Asia, unified by opposition to authoritarianism in general and China’s communist government in particular.
As well as serving as a source of much-needed transnational solidarity for those struggling for democratic reforms in repressive countries, it has also helped weave together a loosely networked protest movement that shares a common repertoire of symbols and tactics. These range from the use of the three-finger salute (taken from The Hunger Games film franchise) to the use of hardhats and flash-mobs.
Like its creation of bespoke icons for the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, Twitter’s support for the Milk Tea Alliance represents a convenient alignment of principle and profit.
Given that the company is blocked in China, it has little to lose financially from coming out in support of the protesters – indeed, it stands to profit from the platform’s further adoption in Asia – while its move helps push back against the claim that social media have played an important enabling role in the rise of authoritarian demagogues from the Philippines to Brazil to the United States.
As James Buchanan, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University International College, told Reuters, “Twitter has plenty to gain by appealing to young people in the Asian markets that are open to them.”
That said, if the emoji helps to publicize the struggles of those fighting for democratic and liberal reforms across Asia, the company’s support – whatever its mixed or ulterior motives – will no doubt be warmly welcomed.