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Twitter pokes at China with emoji supporting #MilkTeaAlliance

Twitter prominently displayed flags of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar and Thailand while unveiling an emoji to support pro-democracy activists in places that have all seen historic protests in recent years and share a love for the milky, caffeinated drink popular in Asia.

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 10, 2021 file photo, a mobile phone user turns on the Twitter application on his smartphone in Moscow, Russia. A court in Moscow on Friday April 2, 2021, fined Twitter for not taking down calls encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized rallies, the latest in a series of moves against the social media giant that has been used to amplify dissent in Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, March 10, 2021 file photo, a mobile phone user turns on the Twitter application on his smartphone in Moscow, Russia. A court in Moscow on Friday April 2, 2021, fined Twitter for not taking down calls encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized rallies, the latest in a series of moves against the social media giant that has been used to amplify dissent in Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File) (AP)

Twitter Inc. has thrown its support behind the Milk Tea Alliance of democracy movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, defying China at a time when Beijing is punishing Western companies for commenting on what it considers internal matters.

The social-media company on Thursday prominently displayed flags of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar and Thailand while unveiling an emoji to support pro-democracy activists in places that have all seen historic protests in recent years and share a love for the milky, caffeinated drink popular in Asia. It will automatically show up when users post the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag, which the company said appeared 11 million times since first popping up a year ago.

Although Twitter gets the majority of its revenue from the U.S. and is banned in China along with Facebook and Google, Asia is generally considered a growth area for the company. American internet giants earn advertising revenue off Chinese companies and organizations keen to reach global audiences.

Chinese officials have also increasingly embraced Twitter to counter criticism on a range of topics from snuffing out the democracy movement in Hong Kong to allegations of forced labor in the far west region of Xinjiang. Twitter now labels such accounts as government entities, and in January it used its policy against dehumanization to lock the official account for the Chinese Embassy to the U.S. after a post that defended the Communist Party’s policies in Xinjiang.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters during a regular press conference on Thursday that the Milk Tea Alliance has “consistently held anti-China positions, and is full of biases against China.” After the briefing, Zhao added he hopes Twitter can be “fair to objective” in providing its services.

Last month, Beijing supported a boycott of retailers like Hennes & Mauritz AB amid rising criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang, where international observers have 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 form, information is shared, and change happens,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

A spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sharing Tactics

Increasingly the Milk Tea Alliance is more than just a meme. Young, digital-savvy activists across the region have shared tactics for organizing and sustaining home-grown protest and democracy movements, while trying to ensure that demonstrators and organizers know how to avoid identification or arrest.

Following Hong Kong’s protracted unrest in 2019, several activists in the territory have voiced support for other democracy movements: First Thai protesters challenging the monarchy and then Myanmar demonstrators following a Feb. 1 coup. Well-known Hong Kong democracy advocate Joshua Wong, who is currently in jail and facing multiple charges, has 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 voiced opposition to governments censoring the Internet or suppressing access to wireless networks, a tactic deployed by Myanmar’s military government.

“From #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter to #MilkTeaAlliance, Twitter continues to play a unique role in enabling the public conversation around important social movements that are happening around the world,” the company tweeted. “During times of civil unrests or violent crackdowns, it is more important than ever for the public to have access to the #OpenInternet for real-time updates, credible information, and essential services. #KeepitOn.”

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