Ever since young Thais regained their long-lost political voice, hasty comparisons have been made between them and their restive counterparts in Hong Kong. In late February, when Thai students rallied on campuses to protest the dissolution of the popular opposition, Future Forward Party, observers wondered if it marked the beginning of “Hong Kong style” protests.
The Thai establishment seemed to make the connection, too. In October last year, army chief Apirat Kongsompong gave a bizarre speech, in which he alleged a conspiracy between Future Forward and Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong, suggesting that “impressionable” young Thais were also being instigated to rise up. As “evidence”, he cited a recent meeting between Joshua Wong and Future Forward’s charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit at The Economist’s Open Future event in Hong Kong.
The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok also seemed rattled by the encounter, releasing a strongly-worded statement warning Thai politicians not to get involved with “separatist” groups in China, as this would be “detrimental to Chinese-Thai friendship”.
But neither the Thai army chief nor the Chinese Embassy had anything to worry about. Thanathorn, who often seems driven by idealism, this time put politics and diplomacy first, distancing himself from Joshua Wong and reaffirming his neutrality in Chinese affairs. And although young Thais were increasingly frustrated with politics at home, most showed scant interest in what was happening across the South China Sea in Hong Kong. There seemed to be little solidarity between the two democracy movements and no great depth of feeling amongst Thais about the contentious politics of Greater China.
All of that changed over the weekend with a single, innocent tweet.
On Friday, a Thai freelance photographer using the handle @yamastdio tweeted four urban landscape photos, in which he unwittingly labelled Hong Kong as a “country” instead of a part of China. The photos were striking and quickly went viral, helped along by a retweet from Vachirawit “Bright” Chiva-aree, a young Thai actor with a loyal following in mainland China.
Bright’s Chinese followers were quick to notice the tweet, take offence and demand it be deleted. The photographer apologised and eventually complied, leaving many Thais angered by the jingoistic reaction of the Chinese nationalists.
A heated exchange between Thai and Chinese netizens soon raged across Twitter, continuing well into Saturday and Sunday, further amplified by social media posts from Bright’s girlfriend, NNevvy Weeraya, which were perceived by the Chinese to be provocative. Her name soon became a catch-all hashtag for the affair, which was tweeted well over 2 million times.
The quarrel revealed a previously unseen level of sympathy among younger Thais for the political causes of Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as a distaste for the aggressive brand of nationalism sometimes seen from China.
Many of the Thai tweets expressed solidarity with Taiwan’s claims to statehood and even went so far as to support Hong Kong independence - something few local activists are willing or able to do, at least publicly.
If the Thais’ comments cut deep into “One-China” sensitivities, then the Chinese were left scrambling to find an effective counter-attack. Some took aim at Thailand’s eccentric and controversial King Vajiralongkorn, which would certainly have raised the hackles of more conservative Thais.
But Thai Twitter leans liberal and has been a hotbed of anti-establishment sentiment, often expressed with creative and irreverent humour. This has included unprecedented levels of public criticism of the monarchy, which not so long ago was considered untouchable. Instead of offence, the Chinese tweets mocking the Thai king were met with sarcasm and delight.
Other points of attack were casually swatted away, too. Your country is poor and undeveloped. Yes, we also complain about that. You talk about Tiananmen, but what about the Thai massacre of October 6th, 1976? It was terrible, thanks for helping us raise awareness. What if we said the three troubled provinces in your south should be independent? Maybe they should be, we would support that. The Chinese “insults” were in fact just popular talking points among progressive young Thais nowadays.
The tweets on the Chinese side were initially organic, coming from “fangirls” of the actor Bright. Although Twitter is blocked in China, this can be circumvented, especially by fans of Kpop, and others looking to keep up with the latest trends.
But as the debates intensified, the fangirls were eventually joined by what seemed like bots, Chinese government agents known as wu mao, and aggressive trolls, possibly from the Communist Youth League.
By this time, the feud had come to the attention of those outside Thailand, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong, who waded into the fray and applauded the Thais for taking on their mortal enemies the wu mao with such humour and class. The mayor of Taoyuan, Taiwan tweeted his thanks to the Thais and Joshua Wong responded with a thread saying that the incident gave him hope in youth activism, expressing a desire to “build a new kind of pan-Asian solidarity that opposes all forms of authoritarianism”.
And so the fears of the Chinese and Thai governments eventually came true. The pro-democracy youth movements in the respective countries have now taken a step closer together, bonded in spirit by their alliance in “the battle of #nnevvy”.
The Thai regime may now think it has more reason to worry about “Hong Kong style” protests in the future, after the coronavirus crisis subsides. And the Chinese Communist Party will be incensed by the loss of face in the region and the open support shown for its adversaries.
At a time when the governments of Thailand and China seem to be moving closer together, their people seem to be drifting apart.
All because of an innocently mislabelled photograph of some skyscrapers - and an aggressive, overbearing nationalism that seems to do China more harm than good.