China has responded angrily to Twitter's decision to create an emoji for a growing pro-democracy movement pushed by residents seeking political freedom from Beijing's communist grasp.
On Thursday, Twitter revealed its new milk tea emoji, which accompanies the increasingly-popular hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.
The hashtag is synonymous with a global online campaign that has united anti-Beijing campaigners in Hong Kong and Taiwan with protesters in Thailand, Myanmar and beyond.
You may be wondering why the drink has been linked to a fight for freedom and democracy? Well the simple answer is they're all united by their love of their own variants of the sweet beverage which is hugely popular across large parts of Asia.
It first began in April last year from a Twitter spat when Chinese nationalists accused a young Thai actor and his girlfriend of supporting democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence.
Use of the hashtag peaked again in February after the military coup in Myanmar, where protesters using the hashtag rallied regional support.
🧵Today we are launching an emoji for the #MilkTeaAlliance, an online solidarity alliance first started in April 2020 as a Twitter meme which has grown into a global pro-democracy movement led by activists and concerned citizens in 🇭🇰🇹🇭🇹🇼🇲🇲 and around the world.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) April 8, 2021
It has since become a vital tool for activists across the region, with it being used for organising and sustaining local protests and movements, while offering legal support for those involved.
"To celebrate the first anniversary of the #MilkTeaAlliance, we designed an emoji featuring 3 different types of milk tea colours from regions where the Alliance first formed online," Twitter announced.
The social media giant said the hashtag had been used more than 11 million times in the past year.
China 'firmly opposes' Twitter's move
Yet China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian hit out at the move during the ministry's daily press conference.
"[Twitter] has been biased against China all along based on its anti-China position, to which we firmly oppose," he said.
Twitter defended its move by saying it "continues to play a unique role in enabling the public conversation around important social movements that are happening around the world".
Ironically Mr Zhao uses the platform for his own aggressive diplomacy, regularly attacking other nations who clash with China, a tactic more readily used by Chinese officials in recent years.
Notably, he enraged Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November when he shared a digital artwork depicting an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child in the wake of the Brereton Report.
The account of renowned Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, who is currently in jail and facing multiple charges, used the hashtag on Thursday, stating: "Always in solidarity, no matter how hard the times."
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) April 8, 2021
He previously 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 unlikely to lose out from Beijing stance
While Western companies have faced the wrath of China for what it describes as interfering with internal matters, Twitter, like many other Western sites, is banned across China.
James Buchanan, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Mahidol University International College, said Twitter's move will be seen as a pushback against Beijing and it would be unlikely to hurt it financially.
He said the step could in fact prove to be beneficial to its interests in Asia.
“Twitter has plenty to gain by appealing to young people in the Asian markets that are open to them,” he said.
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