The strident efforts of Chinese patriots to police speech on Twitter — a platform that ordinary Chinese are barred from using — has spawned an unintended consequence.
Meet the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a pact formed between netizens from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand in order to peg back Beijing’s bullies on the platform.
The Alliance emerged last month after crossfire between mainland Chinese online patriots and Thai netizens.
The spark was a set of four photos showing city skylines that popular Thai actor Vachirawit Chiva-aree or Bright (@bbrightvc) retweeted. One of the skylines was Hong Kong’s. The tweet noted fatefully that the photos were taken in “four countries.”
Chinese patriots swarmed the now-deleted tweet, which they interpreted as showing support for Hong Kong independence. Although Bright quickly apologized, calling his retweet “thoughtless”, the patriotic trolls decided to go further, and dug into his social media histories.
That brought them to Bright’s female friend Weeraya Sukaram, or Nnevvy (@nvy_weeraya), on Twitter, who had shared a post speculating that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan virology lab.
The patriots also unearthed an Instagram post from 2018, in which Nnevvy responded to Bright complimenting her for her “Chinese” look by stating that she preferred “Taiwan style.”
The Chinese online patriots interpreted Nnevvy’s comment as anti-China and pro-Taiwanese independence and began trolling Nnevvy with the hashtag #Nnevvy.
Eventually Nnevvy had to protect both her Instagram and Twitter account.
Policing online speech
Since 2014, the Chinese government has been tightening control over an already suffocated information space.
Non-mainland Chinese pop stars and other celebrities enjoying success in the Chinese market are increasingly expected to promote a positive image of China, or at least be in sync with Beijing’s official narratives.
This new emphasis has seen stars from both Taiwan and Hong Kong coerced into declaring their love for China in recent times.
Chinese online patriots have provided important assistance to the state censors in this effort.
Typically they find celebrity speech that deviates from official discourse, report it to authorities and call for public boycotts.
This kind of speech policing has now been extended to Twitter, despite the fact that the platform is not available to Chinese internet users without proxies.
For example, the general manager of Houston Rockets Daryl Morey set off an online firestorm last year when he tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests.
The tweet quickly prompted a crisis between China and the US National Basketball Association (NBA) for whom the Chinese audience is a vital market.
Morey was forced to apologize.
Bright became a popular actor in China after the Thai romantic comedy “2gether” began airing online there.
Not satisfied with generating a backlash on Twitter, Chinese patriots reported Bright and Nnevvy’s politically incorrect speech on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent with 300 million active monthly users, and other Chinese platforms.
There they called for a boycott of “2gether,” while also mobilizing Chinese netizens to teach Thailand users the One China principle on Instagram and Twitter.
Below is a tweet typical of the Chinese patriot response.