Hong Kong Protesters

#MilkTeaAlliance: Social Media and big organizing in Hong Kong

12 minutes to read
Article
My Pham
17/06/2021

In 2019, Hong Kong protestors took to the streets, proclaiming democracy in their region. Their battle took place not only in the streets but also in the media as young Hong Kong activists attempted to gather collective power from outside of the region. The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance was born, symbolizing far more than Asian people's fondness for milk tea.

Anatomy of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong movement

In 2019, videos of Hong Kong riot police firing tear gas and protesters attacking with petrol bombs spread all over the Internet, triggering the international public's curiosity and concern. The mass protests were prompted by an amendment to the extradition bill by the Hong Kong administration in 2019. According to the new law, under certain circumstances Hong Kong citizens could be extradited to China and convicted under the Chinese judiciary system. For many Hong Kong youth, this new bill threatened the city's democracy and independence from mainland China. However, the new bill was simply the latest issue in a decade-long conflict between pro-democracy activists and the Hong Kong administration, who are under increasing influence from the Chinese Communist Party.

The first sit-in demonstration took place on March 15th, 2019, organized by the pro-democratic group Demosistō. Later the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), a platform for 50 pro-democracy groups, initiated different marches opposing the imposition of the new bill. The extradition law was finally withdrawn in September of 2019, but demonstrations in the city did not end. Implementation of the new National Security Law on July 1st, 2020 prompted a new wave of protests.

The movement in 2019-2020 was anarchical and decentralized, yet self-disciplined.

This pro-democracy movement has been described as an upgraded version of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. While the 2014 movement was led by high-profile activists who were eventually imprisoned or exiled, the 2019-2020 movement was anarchical and decentralized, yet self-disciplined.  No organization took full responsibility for the movement and all pro-democracy legislators took only supporting roles. Protesters and activists used different tactics to obfuscate their actions from police and protect their identities in light of previous government retaliation.

Online platforms were the primary means of organizing protests. Nathan Law, founding chairman of Demosistō said: “We are just one of the participants. It’s leaderless, autonomous...Most participants in the protests are not coming as part of any organization but finding out about different activities through social platforms online.” Telegram and LIHKG were the two most popular online platforms used to organize marches. LIHKG is “a Hong Kong version of Reddit where anonymous users are posting ideas for creative protest: disrupting the subway station, gathering for vigils or “picnics,” making anti-extradition bill memes that appeal to conservative values so that older Hong Kongers will get involved."

Below is a post from the LIHKG forum about the goal of the protests and encouraging people outside of Hong Kong to contribute to the movement.

Post from LIHKG forum

Big organizing

For almost half a century, small organizing was prominent in political fields due to its advantages in organizing and controlling power relations in a much smaller group of people (Becky & Exley, 2016). The rise of big organizing in the past few years marks a turning point. Whereas digitalization was once equated with 'horizontal networks and swarms', we see that today digital media are increasingly being used to organize mass movements. Consequently, digital culture is increasingly invading politics and becoming an essential factor in election campaigns and social movements.

Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people” (Bond & Exley, 2016).

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong also utilized big organizing. Big organizing tries to solve big issues, issues that are often so large and complicated that they require revolution and mass political change. “Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people” (Bond & Exley, 2016). It therefore makes sense for the Hong Kong protesters to engage in big organizing - the protests sought solutions for a variety of connected problems: human rights, Hong Kong's civil rights, alleged police misconduct, and the city's autonomous status. Due to these enormous goals, the target group of big organizing is the masses. Different from small organizing, which only “micro-target tiny slices of the electorate”, mass revolutions can only be achieved by mobilizing the masses.

Under mass organizing, protestors claim that they do not need anyone to motivate their actions or tell them what to do. As Baggio Leung, organizer of the political group Youngspiration, formed after the 2014 Umbrella Movement, said: “We express the ideals of freedom instead of idolizing a particular person...We don’t have anyone or any particular party to tell us what to do." However, according to Bond and Exley (2016), there are 'leaders' in big organizing movements, although they do not self-identify as such. Rather they identify themselves as representatives or spokespersons of the movement. At nearly all levels, people holding leadership roles work as volunteers, and their responsibilities are to shape the group's ideas, motivate followers, and represent the movement in the media. People like Baggio Leung are the leaders of the Hong Kong movement.

Most importantly, mass organizing “seeks to turn out big majorities in support of big ideas by integrating new disruptive technology into the practice of political organizing” (Bond & Exley, 2016). The affordances of digital media, and social media in particular, are the channels where politicians’ and campaigners’ ideologies can reach people and create collective action. The use of social media is important since activists need to bring the movement to other platforms and an international public, especially when movements are unfairly represented by local media. In other words, activists also work with the ideologies of the hybrid media system, where old and new media interact and collectively shape the public's understanding social movements. 

Hybrid media logic

In the era of mass media, newspapers, television, and radio produced and broadcasted information for the masses. In other words, these media held power in propagating ideologies. However, when social networking sites became prominent, new media quickly became norms in consuming information. However it did not replace old media: they co-exist. According to Chadwick et al. (2016), “the hybrid media system is built upon interactions among older and newer media logics- where logics are defined as bundles of technologies, genres, norms, behaviors and organizational forms- in the reflexively connected social fields of media and politics.” Old and new media logics interact and integrate with one another, creating a dynamic and hybridized media landscape.

In the hybrid media system, broadcasting companies are not the ones who hold power, and mass media logic has been transformed. Today, the media environment and politics are more polycentric with many different actors shaping political events. “Actors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable, or disable others’ agency, across and between a range of older and newer media settings” (Chadwick et al., 2016).

In this hybridized system, the people who hold power are those who can control the flow of information and make it visible on multiple platforms. The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement applied various tactics, based on the hybrid media system's logic, to steer information and create a strong base of followers both in and outside of Hong Kong.

Algorithmic Populism 

Joshua Wong is one of the most famous figures from the Hong Kong movement. He uses Twitter to boost his messages to neutral audiences and communicate with followers. In the digital age, “Politicians, and populists in particular have to build a large audience if they want to claim to be speaking in name of the people. Each post needs to reach an audience that actively supports or at least interacts with the mediatized voice, so that the algorithms push it into relevance. Each post has to have ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and ‘comments’.

On Twitter, Joshua has 744,000 followers. Even though he is currently in jail, his account is still active and posts updates on his situation. He delivers messages about democracy and human rights to engage his followers' interest. Below is a tweet of his about 12 young activists who were detained in China when they tried to flee to Taiwan. The tweet received over 4600 likes, 3900 retweets, and a massive number of replies. At the same time, he explains the activists’ opinions on freedom, their reasons for their actions, and challenges his followers to be on board with him.

“Politicians and populists in particular have to build a large audience if they want to claim to be speaking in name of the people."

According to Gerbaudo (2012), on social media these activists take on a complex and 'liquid' or 'soft' form of leadership. Although they do not openly claim their leadership positions, they “played a crucial role in setting the scene for the movements’ gatherings in public space, by constructing common identifications or accumulating or triggering an emotional impulse towards public assembly.”

 

Joshua Wong's opinions about Free 12 Hong Kong Youth Movement

Joshua Wong's opinions about Free 12 Hong Kong Youth Movement 2

Even from prison, Wong engages with his followers by asking them to write letters. Lewis (2018) used the term 'Political Influencer' to describe activists who use the ideologies of microcelebrity to "promote a range of political positions." Through posting diverse content that both directly and indirectly referenced the protests, Joshua Wong became well-known within the activist community.

Unlike traditional influencers, political influencers do not leverage their following for commercial gain. Instead, they adopt influencer techniques to 'sell'  political ideologies. The advantage of being a microcelebrity is that they can build trust and connections with followers, and therefore create a firm social identity for themselves. In this way, activists like Wong can build up a like-minded community.

Joshua Wong encourages people to write his letter when he is in prison

 

#MilkTeaAlliance

In the hybrid media system, populists work on 'the attention-based economy' with audience labor as the crucial ingredient (Maly, 2020). Politicians' posts must create interest and attention among audiences, enough to prompt audience interaction and help steer the information. When a large number of people interact with a post, social media algorithms interpret it as relevant and significant and make it more visible on newsfeeds.

Maly (2020) argues that simple “attention” is not enough in a hybrid media system, instead 'networked influence' is key. Networked influence can be understood as the influence of networks based on both human relationships and non-human factors. These networks affect political messages, and “influence” can only be created with the assistance of the algorithms.

To understand the 'networked influence' aspect of this movement, we can look at how the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance became part of the shared political discourse amongst Asian activists. Milk tea or bubble tea is a type of bittersweet drink, usually eaten with chewy tapioca, popular with young people across Asia. In April 2020, this drink became a symbol of pro-democracy movements in various Asian countries.

The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance becomes the shared political discourse amongst Asian activists.

As Hong Kong protesters marched in the streets, mass protests were also forming in Thailand, organized by university students who wanted full democracy and a reform of the Thai monarchy. Despite very different contexts, the two groups of activists came together to find power and support beyond their national borders through the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag.

Activists in Taiwan and many other Asian countries soon started using the hashtag to show their support on Twitter. #MilkTeaAlliance soon became “a largely online coalition of activists primarily from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who have rallied together this year in solidarity with their respective political struggles.” Despite different political contexts and agendas, people used the hashtag to show their frustration with the political situation in their own countries, demanding democracy and freedom from authoritarianism. Later, the hashtag “became emblematic of the frustration many young people across Asia feel toward Beijing’s grating assertiveness in the region.”

Below, Joshua Wong explains the idea behind the hashtag: to create a pan-Asia democratic movement against China's authoritarianism in the region.

Joshua's opinions about #MilkTeaAlliance

Since the hashtag came into existence, both Hong Kong and Thai activists have regularly posted updates and discussions on protests in both countries. They regularly filmed their online discussions and tried to create a shared ideology for the two separate movements. Using the same hashtag for two movements, they organically gained a larger audience who actively and voluntarily liked, shared, tweeted, and spread their updates. This consequently triggered Twitter's algorithms and the hashtag trended. 

The importance of uptake

In light of algorithmic populism, and contemporary politics in general, message uptake has become especially important for political actors, “since only when there are significant uptakes can they “stress that they actually articulate the voice of the people” (Maly, 2020).

One notable uptake of the hashtag is a tweet from Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te that recieved 47000 likes and 13400 retweets. In this tweet, the hashtag is not limited to social movements in Thailand or Hong Kong, but rather sends a message of Taiwanese pride, and allyship with various Asian countries.

However, from a broader point of view, the tweet implies more than just a celebration of the national day. By using the hashtag in his message, the Vice President emphasized China's aggressive power in the region and Taiwan's independence from China. The Vice President's tweet had a great impact on the hashtag and the movements. It helped them reach a larger audience and legitimized the movements in traditional mass media.

Taiwanese Vice President support #MilkTeaAlliance

Remaining challenges

In Hong Kong and many other countries, social movements are becoming more resilient. Digital culture and especially social media has played a great part in the widespread rise of these movements. Through digital media, politicians and activists can build a large following, and ordinary people can gather, unite, and organize. The emergence of the hybrid media system ideology also helps alternative sources break into the mass media landscape. Steering and directing the flow of information no longer depends on traditional news sources or state media - any individual can participate.

The Hong Kong protests were successful in using big organizing tactics in the sense that the movement was “popular” on social and also mass media.  Activists like Joshua Wong are active on social media and different traditional news sources. Wong regularly writes for different newspapers and is frequently interviewed by Western and Asian media sources like The Guardian, BBC, and Washington Post. According to Wong and his fellow activists, they feel responsible for letting people know what is happening in Hong Kong so that the fight for democracy across Asia can continue.

However, they still face enormous challenges. At the time of writing, Wong and a number of other activists are still in prison under the charges of the National Security Law. The future of the movement, and whether their efforts can bring about true revolution, is uncertain. The Hong Kong protests have potentially left activists and politicians who want to apply big organizing tactics with more questions than answers.

References

Bond, B. & Exley, Z. (2016). Rules for Revolutionaries. How Big Organizing can Change Everything. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Chadwick, A., Dennis, J. & Smith, A.P. (2015) , Politics in the Age of Hybrid Media. In A. Bruns, G. Enli, E. Skogerbø, A. O. Larsson & C. Christensen (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics. Routledge

Gerbaudo, P. ( 2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. Pluto Press.  

Maly, I., 2020. ALGORITHMIC POPULISM AND THE DATAFICATION AND GAMIFICATION OF THE PEOPLE BY FLEMISH INTEREST IN BELGIUM. Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada, 59(1), pp.444-468.