An Upswell of Solidarity: China’s Mekong Dams Face Online Backlash

After years of concern that Chinese activity along the Mekong River could harm downstream countries, there is new evidence that China’s “spree of upstream dam building”—as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once put it—is severely disrupting the flow of the river. The new findings provoked a far-reaching response from netizens across Southeast Asia, highlighting the precarious juggling act that some regional actors face in balancing their own interests with those of their much larger neighbor.

The Mekong River (known as the Lancang River in China) is one of the world’s longest and most important waterways. Flowing from southwestern China into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the Mekong and its tributaries are the economic lifeblood of some 60 million people in Southeast Asia.

Water flowing from China contributes about 16 percent of the Mekong’s total flows over the course of a year. During dry seasons, however, less rainfall in the lower reaches of the Mekong means that water originating in China can account for roughly half of the river’s volume. That number can rise to as much as 70 percent during droughts.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, January 19, 2018.

When a severe drought hit the region in 2019, downstream water levels dropped to their lowest point in a century, which devastated some local communities along the lower Mekong. Rice fields went unplanted as farmers were unable to irrigate the land. Fish populations suffered as well, dealing a blow to the millions of fishers who rely on the river for their livelihood.

In February 2020, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi blamed the historically low water levels on the drought. Wang made it clear that Chinese leaders would seek to increase water levels to “help Mekong countries alleviate the impact of the drought.”

The image promoted by Minister Wang was one of a benevolent China willing to help its neighbors during a time of hardship. A new study funded by the U.S. State Department paints a less rosy picture—one in which Chinese dams, and not mother nature, were the main culprit behind dwindling water levels. The report found that the Mekong’s upper basin in China actually received above-average precipitation in 2019. Had the Mekong’s flow not been obstructed by Chinese dams, areas along the Thai-Lao border would have experienced slightly higher-than-usual water levels.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization established in 1995 by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to coordinate management of the river, responded to the new report with skepticism. While the organization called for greater transparency from Beijing, it publicly questioned the findings of the report in a 13-page commentary and called for “more scientific evidence . . . to conclude that the 2019 drought was in large part caused by water storage in Upper Mekong dams [in China].” What limited statements were offered by MRC member governments were similarly tepid.

The MRC’s response follows a familiar pattern. Countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere have long felt pressure to couch their actions so as to not offend Beijing. In the South China Sea, claimant states have protested China’s assertive behavior but have been unable to do much more. Echoes of the economic punishments that Beijing lobbed at Manila in retaliation for the months-long standoff between the two sides at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 likely still resonate in the minds of political leaders in Southeast Asia.
Officials in the region are loath to see their own economies on the receiving end of coercive measures by Beijing. All five lower Mekong countries share deep trade ties with the economic giant to their north and would stand to suffer significantly if targeted by punitive action.

These countries are also heavily reliant on investment from China. From 2010 to 2019, China provided more than $75 billion worth of investments and construction projects to the five lower Mekong countries. Nearly one-third of that total went to Laos amid the country’s drive to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” through the construction of several dozen hydroelectric dams along the Mekong and its tributaries.
Political leaders in Southeast Asia may feel the need to tread lightly, but internet users are not so retrained. As the new report about the Mekong gained traction, the hashtag #StopMekongDam began trending on Twitter in Thailand. One of the more popular posts using the hashtag includes a caricature of an oversized Xi Jinping looming over diminutive depictions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam standing in a dried-out riverbed.

This is not the first time in recent memory that Thais have reacted sharply to Chinese projects along the Mekong. In February of this year, local communities and environmentalists succeeded in pressuring the Thai government to scrap a decades-old Chinese plan to blast away rapids on the Mekong to allow larger vessels to navigate the river. However, the online opposition to Chinese dams that arose in April came amid a broader online pushback against Beijing, dubbed the #MilkTeaAlliance—a hat tip to the popular beverage widely enjoyed by Asian communities outside of China, where milk is less commonly mixed with tea.

The hashtag gained popularity in mid-April in response to Chinese netizens attacking a Thai actor and his girlfriend, who were seen as supporting Hong Kong and Taiwan independence. When the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok entered the fray with a Facebook post defending Beijing’s “One China” principle, it was met with thousands of replies from angry Thais.

#MilkTeaAlliance quickly became a symbol of solidarity among internet users in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as individuals elsewhere in the region wishing to resist Chinese pressure or at the very least make light of China’s authoritarian regime. The movement built on long-held frustrations with regional governments seen as cozying up to China and was further amplified by an upswell of anger over Beijing’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It goes without saying that a few popular memes are not representative of the complex political realities facing countries in the region. Yet, it would be a mistake to outright dismiss these developments. The reach of #MilkTeaAlliance, whether intentional or not, has extended beyond just Southeast Asia. In Washington D.C., the surge in anti-China social media activity quickly attracted the attention of members of the policy community, where some of the memes associated with the hashtag have been quietly discussed (including by the authors of this article).

It is impossible to tell if this groundswell of solidarity among Asian nations will evolve beyond caricatures of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. It does, however, highlight a very real desire within the region to see government leaders stand up to China, which dovetails with U.S. efforts to buttress the rules-based international order against Chinese pressure. Protestations over China’s dam-building campaign will ebb and flow, and #MilkTeaAlliance will stop trending, but the underlying currents of solidarity may very well persist. Policy leaders in D.C. should keep a watchful eye on what is happening online.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow with the China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the iDeas Lab at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Brian Hart is a research associate with the China Power Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project