A Storm in a Milk Tea Pot

How Milk Tea became the symbol for a transnational fight for democracy

In Asia, authoritarian governments are making protesting in the street an increasingly harder feat. In turn, more and more young people are finding an outlet for their dissatisfaction online, particularly through humorous memes. Are street demonstrations doomed to become obsolete?

In the earlier half of the 2010s, the world watched in awe as a rally of young people went out onto the streets, demanding freedom and democracy from their authoritarian states. There was no leader and no hierarchy; for many, all they had was an Internet connection and their mobile phone. Through networks on Twitter, the Arab Spring managed at the time to grow into the millions, and spread to numerous countries across the region. Though never successful in implementing freedom and democracy once the protests quietened down, the Arab Spring proved to its bystanders that the way we protest was beginning to change.

Since then, social media has evolved dramatically: Platforms that didn’t even exist ten years ago have now taken centre stage, while authoritarian regimes have become fully aware of the power these platforms hold — and have begun actively censoring them in return. Through this, the mode of protesting has been forced to change, too. During the Arab Spring, social media was only ever a tool to organise protests that were bubbling up offline already. In comparison, in East and Southeast Asia, almost ten years later, social media is the sole tool with which people are protesting. But how can one effectively protest on social media? To answer this, one must examine the way political messaging can travel from one account to the next.

Cute Cats and Hidden Jokes

In 2008, media scholar Ethan Zuckerman developed the “Cute Cat Theory”, which states: If people use the internet to spread funny and cute cat images, they inadvertently create effective tools and platforms that can one day be useful for spreading political messaging. The algorithms are one and the same — and because these platforms become so popular for their funny content, it becomes much harder for governments to justify censoring them due to political dissent.

While this effect was in its infancy when Zuckerman created his theory, it now accurately describes much of the Internet landscape we see today. The Internet has quickly become the hub of so-called “meme culture”, a term used to describe the widespread way in which young people communicate online through jokes in text or picture form. A lot of the time, memes are no more than harmless jokes, meant to entertain people with shared experiences. As they travel through the Internet though, they often become “remixed”, whereby users repost the original meme with their own spin on it — sometimes transforming the joke, sometimes using the template of the meme to describe an entirely different situation. Each alteration slowly adds a new layer to an inside joke, with the meme usually becoming increasingly nonsensical to outsiders. 

One example of this was the video of 2020 US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign video in which he was “once again asking for your financial support”. The screengrab of this still with its subtitle became an instant meme. It was used with different captions over it, about relatable situations like running out of money and having to ask your parents for more, or comparing it to being messaged by scammers on social media wanting your credit card number. 

After multiple weeks of it being on the Internet though, the joke had become more and more distorted. Soon, Sanders wasn’t asking for financial support, but for someone to be his valentine, or to repeat their name just minutes after they had introduced themselves. Further down the line, it wasn’t even Sanders asking anymore: Over his face was a photoshopped cat “once again asking for more food”, or Uncle Sam asking you to join the military. And even later still, the original image wasn’t even to be seen on some of the remixes, such as one meme showing Pakistani politician Imran Khan “once again asking the world leaders: What about Kashmir?”.

To an outsider, this final form of the meme makes absolutely no sense, at least not as to why others would find it funny. But this is the appeal of such memes; the reference itself, the element of it being an inside joke, is what becomes the reason for sharing it. 

Because of this appeal, meme remixes often end up becoming political fairly quickly, because users realise they can package their political opinions neatly in a meme format — and thus reach more people. Humorously depicting Imran Khan asking about Kashmir independence makes it much easier to help spread this ideology through the Internet. As a meme, it’s harmless, but incredibly effective. In this sense, an image of a cute cat, or a beloved politician, might not always be as simple as what meets the eye — in fact, many a political message can be hidden below the surface.

Uniting in Milk Tea

So, when it becomes commonplace to satirise politics through funny content, memes become more than just light-hearted jokes — they become a way to express dissent that can bring about an entirely new dynamic in protests. Like the most recent social movement in East Asia that, unlike other social media protest waves before, was created entirely online, and proves that social media is changing our political discourses: The Milk Tea Alliance.

The Milk Tea Alliance started as an internet war between Thai and Chinese Twitter users over a Thai actor liking a number of Instagram posts that supposedly indicated his support for Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence. Chinese users began confronting Thai netizens who had jumped to the actor’s defence: They expressed distaste about his opinions, and later, the Thai government, thinking this would offend the Thais defending him. Instead, the Thai users started to take part in making fun of their government, against whom they had been protesting on and off for the better part of the decade themselves.

Soon, multiple other groups of internet users joined in, particularly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, rushing to Thai users’ aid in arguing with the Chinese. Quickly, those engaging in this internet battle were creating memes depicting people from all three of these places uniting first against the Chinese, and later against all forms of authoritarianism. The common ground they found was within milk tea, a drink that is consumed in all three places, though prepared slightly differently: While Hongkongers’ milk tea is filtered many times and served strong, black, and hot, with evaporated sugar and milk in it, the Taiwanese version is more so what has come to be known as “bubble tea” — a cold sweet drink with tapioca pearls at the bottom to suck up. The Thai milk tea in comparison gets an orangey colour from food colouring and various spices like star anise, and is also served cold.

With all the simultaneous similarities and differences in their cultural drinks, Milk Tea became an allegory for the war the protestors were waging: like Milk Tea, none of their political battles were exactly the same, but the common ground was the battle itself — against authoritarianism and for democracy. From this, the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance was born, and soon, the participants were exchanging all the ways in which they could support each other in the fight against their regimes.

A Movement Takes Over

The war these internet users were waging on their governments was a serious one, and yet the material with which they were protesting was entirely removed from that sentiment. They would spread serious anti-authoritarian protest cries with cartoon images of milk tea drinks, managing, through this, to humorise their own plight in a manner subversive enough that it wasn’t instantly subject to internet censorship laws. After all, there is nothing illegal in posting memes about having something as banal as drinking milk tea in common with other nations.

Many classic meme formats that had been floating around the internet for years were remixed to express the current cause, allowing most young netizens to instantly identify with the messaging that was being spread, and engage more with the protestors.

Through this rather comical form of expressing dissatisfaction an entire movement grew. The hashtag quickly spread online, gathering 11 million tweets in twelve months, and receiving its own icon from Twitter for its one-year anniversary on April 7 2021. It further spread into both India, and in particular Myanmar, where Burmese youth began exchanging protest tactics with Hong Kong and Thai users through the hashtag. Myanmar later became the fourth official member of the internet coalition. The Milk Tea Alliance even received messages of support from Taiwanese and Indian government officials, and a handful of US-American senators.

Young Thai people then began to spill out onto the streets in 2020 and 2021 to protest against their monarchical government, in part also inspired by the mobilisation of the Milk Tea Alliance. Many of their demonstrations were squashed, and petitions and opinions online were blocked due to the strict lèse-majesté laws in the country. But because of their online coalition, their movement was able to gain support thousands of kilometres away: Hong Kong and Taiwanese students began protesting in support of the Thais’ cause with Milk Tea banners in their hands.

A Collective Identity in the New Decade

What had started out as simply sharing of memes, had transformed into a transnational network — without any hierarchy or organised cooperation, but with unwavering support for the other members in the alliance. It became clear to the protestors that through the power of making light of democratic struggles in the form of memes they could mobilise an entire movement. Especially the milk tea memes were subversive and unassuming enough to slip past the untrained eye, which made them infinitely more effective: For those that don’t understand them, there is often no concrete evidence upon which to censor the joke. For those that do understand, with each added layer the potency of the message behind the memes grows exponentially — and so does the resulting collective identity.

Of course, it goes without saying that one will not topple a regime through memes. The trend of “slacktivism”, as it is often titled — a term combining the word “slacker”, a lazy, unambitious young person, and “activism” — is one of the more worrying effects of such online movements. It is incredibly easy to protest online — and for that reason, incredibly hard to do it effectively. If the barrier for being part of a protest is only to retweet or repost certain content, then almost anyone can become an activist, without having truly contributed anything meaningful to the cause. The Milk Tea Alliance, for example, brought about no policy change, or overhaul of authoritarian systems — but maybe that is not the standard to judge it by. Maybe it should be judged by the message it sends: That internet censorship laws can only go so far. That authoritarian regimes have an entirely new problem on their hands. At the very least, it sends the message that this is the start of a political generation that is set up entirely differently than the ones that came before it.

The world watched as social media shaped a new form of protest in the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago — and now, we can watch as that effect is exacerbated through new social movements cropping up in Asia. Social media is becoming a pillar through which people are uniting across borders that would have been enormous hindrances in the past. And although maybe nothing has changed yet, forming a collective identity surely is the first step towards achieving a new goal.

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Natascha Koch

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