Twitter Inc. has supported the Milk Tea Alliance of democratic movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, challenging China at a time when Beijing is punishing Western companies for commenting on what it considers internal affairs.
The social media company on Thursday featured flags from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar and Thailand, while revealing an emoji to support pro-democracy activists in places that have seen historic protests in recent years and share a love of milk drink and caffeine popular in Asia. It will appear automatically when users post the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance, which, according to the company, has appeared 11 million times since it first appeared a year ago.
While Twitter gets most of its revenue from the United States and is banned in China along with Facebook and Google, Asia is generally considered to be a growth area for the company. American internet giants gain publicity revenue from Chinese companies and organizations wishing to reach global audiences.
Chinese officials have also increasingly adopted Twitter to curb criticism on a range of topics, from the demise of the democracy movement in Hong Kong to allegations of forced labor in western Xinjiang. Twitter now labels these accounts as government entities and, in January, used its anti-dehumanization policy to to lock the official account of the Chinese Embassy in the United States after a post that defended the policies of the Communist Party in Xinjiang.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters during a regular news conference on Thursday that the Milk Tea Alliance “has consistently maintained anti-China positions and is full of prejudices against China”. After the briefing, Zhao added that he hopes that Twitter can be “fair with the goal” in providing its services.
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Last month, Beijing supported a boycott of retailers like Hennes & Mauritz AB amid growing criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang, where international observers raised concerns about human rights abuses, including detention camps and forced labor in a region that produces much of China’s cotton.
“We are proud of the fact that Twitter is a service where movements are formed, information is shared and changes happen,” said a Twitter spokesman.
A Hong Kong government spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Increasingly, the Milk Tea Alliance is more than just a meme. Young activists with digital experience across the region shared tactics to organize and sustain local protests and democratic movements, while trying to ensure that protesters and organizers know how to avoid identification or arrest.
After Hong Kong’s prolonged unrest in 2019, several activists in the territory expressed support for other movements for democracy: first Thai protesters challenging the monarchy and then demonstrators in Myanmar after the February 1 coup. Well-known Hong Kong democracy advocate Joshua Wong, who is currently in prison and facing several charges, said the Milk Tea Alliance is not just about anger over China’s policies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, but also about China’s growing influence around the region.
Twitter on Thursday also expressed opposition to governments that censor the Internet or suppress access to wireless networks, a tactic implemented by Myanmar’s military government.
“From #Me either, #Black lives matter for #MilkTeaAlliance, Twitter continues to play a unique role in allowing public conversation about important social movements that are happening around the world ”, tweeted the company. “In times of civil unrest or violent repression, it is more important than ever for the public to have access to #OpenInternet for real-time updates, reliable information and essential services. # Keep it on. “
– With the help of Vlad Savov and Lucille Liu
(Updates with the Itamaraty spokesman in the fifth paragraph.)