Observers of internet trends in East Asia know that it takes very little to set off China’s online soldiers to wage war against any perceived slight of their country. Last week, their wrath was directed at Thai actor Vachirawit Chivaaree, also known as Bright, and his girlfriend, Thai model Weeraya Sukaram, who uses the moniker ‘Nnevvy’ on social media platforms, and at social media posts that the pair made that Chinese social media users believed were offensive to China.
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What started this online war?
The online battle started when Sukaram was accused of retweeting and sharing a Thai Twitter post that questioned whether coronavirus had emerged in a laboratory in Wuhan. Chinese social media users, furious at her purported endorsement of this claim, began searching through her social media profiles and claimed that Sukaram had once suggested on an Instagram post from 2017 that Taiwan is not a part of China.
A comment on Sukaram’s Instagram photo said “so pretty, just like a Chinese girl” , to which she replied ‘Taiwanese girl om’.
Beijing has consistently rejected Taiwan’s independence. Pro-China social media users then turned their ire towards Sukaram’s boyfriend, Bright, accusing him of once liking a social media post that said Hong Kong was an independent nation, another stance that the Beijing government has rejected.
These Chinese social media users then called for a boycott of Bright’s ongoing hit television drama, 2gether: The Series. Within days, pro-China messages began flooding Weibo with approximately 1.44 million posts using related hashtags against Bright and Sukaram. Presumably fearing for his television drama, Bright issued a public apology on Twitter for his post.
i’m feel so sorry about my thoughtless retweet too , i only saw the pictures and did not read the caption clearly. Next time there will be no mistake like this again.🙏🏼💙
— bbright (@bbrightvc) April 10, 2020
The online war, mostly conducted on Twitter in Chinese, Thai, English and a few other languages in the Southeast Asia region, soon took a form of its own, using the primary hashtag “nnevvy” after Sukaram’s moniker. The two Thai celebrities found support from pro-democracy activists and politicians and other social media users who used the incident to further reject China’s nationalistic war in the region. Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong and Cheng Wen-Tsan, mayor of Taoyuan city in Taiwan, joined the discussion and extended their support to Sukaram and Bright.
“Hong Kong stand with our freedom-loving friends in Thailand against Chinese bullying! #nnevvy”, tweeted Wong. “Bright’s fans adore him for his popular romantic TV drama, 2gether: The Series, about the story of a gay couple. They’re young and progressive, obviously not blindly pro-government (unlike their counterparts in China). The exchange shows what Chinese nationalists can’t grasp.”
— Joshua Wong ??? ?? (@joshuawongcf) April 12, 2020
How did this social media war escalate?
While some on social media were Bright’s fans from Southeast Asian countries who had stepped into the fight to defend their beloved star, there were others who were using the incident to highlight China’s authoritarianism and influence in their own countries across the region into which Beijing has made inroads over the years through large financial investments. Pro-China social media users, presumably using a VPN to sidestep the firewall and access Twitter, then began attacking Thailand for being a “poor” and “backward” nation and also hurled insults at the Thai king and the Thai prime minister.
Thai social media users cleverly turned the tables on their Chinese counterparts, surprising them by showing how little regard Thai nationals have for their hedonist king and their country’s government and instead joined in mocking the Thai monarch. Thailand has harsh lèse majesté laws, and several critics of the Thai monarchy have faced severe penalties for any perceived criticism and slight of the royal family.
Thai nationals then began using the hashtag “nnvey” to make self-deprecating jokes and hilarious memes about their king, country and government, perplexing many Chinese social media users who were unable to understand the turn of events. China’s online soldiers then began using a Chinese acronym ‘NMSL’ that means “hope your mother dies”, in retaliation. Undeterred, Thai social media users chortled that they have “20 mothers”, a reference to Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s purported harem of 20 women.
— ????????(????) (@cdsa_since_2019) April 12, 2020
Chinese social media users unable to fathom the lack of respect Thai nationals have for their king and country, then began lecturing them on the meaning of patriotism. This led several Thai users to also share videos of the popular rap song ‘Prathet Ku Mee’ (What My Country’s Got), created by Thai rap-group Rap Against Dictatorship, where the rappers are critical of their nation’s military, to show China’s internet warriors that they weren’t afraid of criticising their government.
Some social media users also made a meme of the Chinese national flag and replaced the stars with the Chinese acronym ‘NMSL’, that was widely shared by pro-democracy supporters.
— ????? (@5DeCLR89f2irjsB) April 12, 2020
What is the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’?
Thai social media users began calling for the sovereignty of Taiwan and Hong Kong, extending support to the two countries. This spurred social media users from other Southeast Asian countries to join the call, in a rejection of China’s influence in the region for its own diplomatic and economic gains. The ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ is an informal term coined by social media users because in the region, tea is consumed in many nations with milk, with the exception of China. Memes were formed showing flags of the countries in the “Milk Tea Alliance” with China as a lone outsider.
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) April 15, 2020
The classic anime character Sailor Moon was also used to form a meme of various Asian countries standing with the warrior character against China. Social media users in the pro-Nnevy camp also began calling pro-China users ‘wumao’, a Chinese term for internet soldiers paid for by the government to flood social media platforms with pro-CCP comments.
— John Ho (@JOSHUAHUCKEBEIN) April 12, 2020
What happened next?
China, its government and its “wumao” were blasted on Twitter with memes that mocked the country and its attempts at propaganda and intimidation in the Southeast Asia region. In one post, a user put up a meme of “China warrior” depicting a room full of Chinese soldiers sitting on computers, with captions like “You’re biased against the Communist Party” and “Democracy also has problems”.
Thank you Thai Rice , Very delicious and avoid Hong Kong starving
— dontaskmewho (@dontaskmewho) April 13, 2020
Some began inserting photos and information of the Tiananmen Square protests with the “nnevy” hashtag, words that are at present blocked in China, telling Chinese users to use the opportunity to know about the 1989 movement.
— HW hoy (@HW_Youngg) April 13, 2020
Responding to Chinese social media users saying that Thailand was a poor country, some Thai users began generating memes that read “Chinese: Your country is poor!/ Thai: Your country is Pooh”, a reference to China’s president Xi Jingping who banned the Winnie the Pooh film after the president was compared to the cartoon character.
— Nath (@Nath_C___) April 13, 2020
A barrage of memes and posts ridiculed Chinese social media users for everything from their pro-Communist Party ideology to the spread of coronavirus. Failed attempts by Chinese social media users to mass report tweets, posts and memes that they found critical of China were also soundly mocked on social media platforms.
What did China’s government say?
Just as the online war appeared to be settling down, the Chinese embassy in Bangkok issued a statement on Facebook saying: “The One China Principle is irrefutable”, indicating that the massive online war had not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government. “The recent online noises only reflect bias and ignorance of its maker, which does not in any way represent the standing stance of the Thai government nor the mainstream public opinion of the Thai People. The scheme by some particular people to manipulate the issue for the purpose of inflaming and sabotaging the friendship between the Chinese and Thai people will not succeed,” the lengthy statement added.
The issuance of the embassy’s statement only served to further ignite the online discussion and garnered more than 20,000 comments, with many criticising and denouncing the Chinese government’s ‘One China’ agenda. “The position of the Thai government ≠ The position of Thai people because this government is not a representative of the people,” said one comment on the Embassy’s Facebook page. Another user replied to the statement: “One-China policy is the idea of China. Thai people support Hong Kong and Taiwan as an independent country. Do not intimidate Thais. It does not apply to Thais.”
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