Washington Post: Taiwan’s tea party aims to burst Beijing’s one-China bubble

To show their solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and their commitment to Taiwan’s self-rule, many consumers here are boycotting bubble tea chains that support the “one country, two systems” formula that China uses to rule Hong Kong and that it hopes one day to extend to Taiwan.

“I deliberately came here today because it’s an independent Taiwan store and it doesn’t support ‘one country, two systems,’ ” said Alex Shuie, who works in financial services, as he waited for his drink — known as bubble or boba or pearl tea — at the Ruguo stand in central Taipei.

Milk or fruit, hot or cold, bubble tea is a source of cultural pride in Taiwan. When President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, an anthropomorphic bubble tea mascot danced at her inauguration. In Los Angeles this year, she visited a Taiwanese bubble tea store to show support for her island’s sweetest export. Domino’s in Taiwan has even launched a pizza topped with tapioca balls.

Walking down narrow streets filled with dumpling stalls and restaurant display cases offering every conceivable part of an animal, local journalist Alicia Ying-yu Chen sized up the tea joints.

“No, no, no, not that one, no, okay,” she said as we walked past outlets like CoCo, 50 Lan and Yifang, before arriving at Ke Bu Ke. This one, she told me, had not pandered to China and was therefore deserving of our custom.

As we joined the throng waiting for drinks — for me, standard milk tea with tapioca pearls, no sugar, half ice — Chen pointed out that the tea outlets we had passed were all empty. They were the ones that have voiced political support for China.

But China’s increasingly repressive actions in Hong Kong have led many Taiwanese to view “one country, two systems” as a threat. They say they won’t relinquish their freedoms — not for all the tea in China.

As the protests rolled on, some Hong Kong franchise owners of Taiwanese bubble tea outlets began to subtly voice support for the protesters. A CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice store printed “Add oil, Hongkongers” on its receipts, using the Chinese equivalent of “Go get ’em.” A Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea joint displayed a sign cheering on the protesters.

A firestorm ensued on Chinese social media, with nationalistic netizens calling for Chinese to boycott the chains.

The corporate headquarters of many tea brands rushed to pledge their allegiance to Beijing and its political system. Chinese consumers spent between $5.7 billion and $7.1 billion on bubble tea last year, according to Citic Securities.

Yifang has borne the brunt of the backlash. Thirty of its franchises in Taiwan have closed since August. “Yifang used to be the pride of Taiwan, but now it is a rat crossing the street,” company founder Kei Tzu-kai told the Business Times newspaper last month.

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