When a still unidentified man stepped in front of a line of tanks that were leaving Tiananmen Square the day after the massacre that killed around 1,000 student protesters, it was at the risk of his life. The same cannot be said for modern day pro-democracy activists, who are standing up to modern day tankies — that’s Western, often young, supporters of communist, authoritarian regimes — considering most of the battling is taking place online.
But stand up they do. Some pro-democracy activists from regions under siege by the Chinese government have begun picking fights with these so-called tankies, who dismiss well-documented human rights abuses and crackdowns on freedom in the name of stability, such as the re-education camps for Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. The people who’ve been dubbed “tankies” by critics often identify as Marxist-Leninists by ideology and are fiercely against U.S. imperialism and interference in foreign politics, especially in countries that are socialist.
These fights often take place on social media, where they can span from heated debates in Twitter comments to targeted harassment campaigns and verbal abuse, sometimes by what seem like bots. Accounts like “Hot tankie takes” or “Spicy Tankoid Takes” post regularly to ridicule “Twitter tankies” and “Stalinoids” and expose the “hottest takes” from tankies. Others go into the comment sections of posts to “nuance” the statements made, and hopefully sway a scrolling person or two against supporting them.
“Why do I bother picking these fights?” said a pro-democracy protester who wanted to be known as “Moot,” who has been roaming and posting on the comment section of “tankie Twitter.”
“When other people see these posts, I have a chance to put my words under their words — even just as a disclaimer for somebody to read to show that there’s a point of contention here, you know, because often, the rhetoric they’re pushing is very one sided.”
The vast presence of tankies on social media, a key medium for Hong Kong protesters, could also help explain why so many pro-democracy Hong Kongers had shown steadfast support for former United States President Donald Trump – because they associate the left-wing with tankies.
The term “tankie” itself was originally deployed as a slur against Britain’s communist sympathizers during the Cold War, specifically members of the Communist Party of Great Britain who supported crackdowns against uprisings in Soviet countries, through the use of Soviet tanks.
It has since evolved into a catch-all for people who support crackdowns by authoritarian regimes, whether using literal tanks or not. Now it is popularly used to slander far-leftists, often self-described Marxist-Leninists, who see, for example, China’s unprecedented spurt of economic development as evidence of the Chinese model’s superiority. Some Marxist-Leninists have even begun wearing the term as a badge of honor.
But the notion of sacrificing the wellbeing of some in favor of others is hard to swallow for those on the receiving end, critics argue.
“Basically, it’s very hurtful, okay,” said Moot. “I don’t want to make it sound like: ‘Oh, my feelings are hurt.’ But it’s quite invalidating, actually, when you are on the short end of the stick. When you have all these projectiles pointed at you from cops, when you have laws that restrict your freedoms.”
“So to have these people — sitting comfortably in their chairs overseas, in their own free countries — tell us, the ones who are facing this oppression, that our cause is invalid, and sometimes even that we should be shot and killed — it’s not a very good thing to be saying.”
As tankies recruit more youths to their ranks, it is of natural concern to people caught in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) expansionist crosshairs, such as the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong or Muslim Uyghurs from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and even peoples elsewhere in Asia and Africa. If tankies make it to the mainstream, and eventually win influence on Western public sentiment and subsequently foreign policy, it could have real consequences for many peoples around the world, they argue.
BayArea415, the host of a Marxist-Leninist YouTube channel called The Comrade Report that has just over 20,000 subscribers, told The Diplomat he supported China because of its great success with lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last few decades, and referred to statistics that show that China’s people are generally satisfied with their government. He preferred to remain anonymous.
“When I see China eradicate absolute poverty; stop the spread of COVID-19 in their country, experience rapid economic growth, push for shared prosperity through strong state benefit programs, all under the banner of socialism for 1.4 billion people, I have to say there must be something to that system,” he said.
“It is obvious that China is an alternative, better, and more efficient system; yet it does not attempt to export its model and forcibly convert other countries into socialism, the way the West does with its capitalism through imperialism,” he added. “The people’s democratic dictatorship in China has steered their economy extremely well, using markets for the people’s benefits — not the capitalists.”
Sophie Mak, a pro-democracy activist and student who does work digitally monitoring human rights at the Human Rights Hub at University of Hong Kong, has, many times over, gotten caught in fights with tankies online who criticize her work as a smear campaign against China. She told The Diplomat that tankies often pose an obstacle when promoting human rights. They attack and refute even the most well-sourced claims of China’s human rights abuses — something she has had to deal with in her own work.
One accusation often thrown at pro-democracy activists that makes her particularly angry is when critics dismiss pro-democracy movements in Asia as products of U.S. covert operations to overthrow rising regimes, she said.
“Tankies like to say that they refuse to believe that these protesters can mobilize democracy movements on their own based on nonsensical reasons, like how their protest slogans are in English,” she said, in reference to some who had accused the anti-coup protests in Myanmar of being orchestrated by the United States because some protesters brought protest signs written in English. Critics denounced these accusations as patronizing and Orientalist because they insinuated that the average Burmese person would not be able to write in English.
“At best, it’s ignorance. At worst, it’s willful distortion. They live in their own fantasies and irresponsibly spout their ideology to the detriment of others and to basic humanity,” said Mak. “They think that every world issue has to do with the United States and believe that attempts in regime-change or protests are run by the U.S. government. So, in that way, [the tankies] believe they’re acting to ‘challenge imperialism,’ completely disregarding the irony behind their actions.”
But BayArea415 did not buy into that line of thought. Instead, he pointed to what he called “plain facts” of the United States’ history of interfering in overseas politics. He also noted that U.S. leadership had been actively involved in supporting the protest movement in a variety of ways.
“When I see protesters sing the American anthem, waive British colonial flags, campaign for Donald Trump, or march with Ukrainian fascists, I have to question not only their reasons for this, but also who may be behind this,” he said. “The U.S. State Department fingerprints are all over these marches… The evidence that the West is behind this is no longer a conspiracy, but overwhelmingly obvious.”
He denied accusations of Orientalism with the defense that he and his comrades were on the frontlines in the fight against rising anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, saying that issue was a direct consequence of increasing Sinophobia.
The tankie position currently holds little actual power to influence Western foreign policy toward countries in the old Eastern bloc, with political representation in government being very limited.
“Institutionally, they have no influence,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a Georgetown Ph.D. student, self-described “activist historian,” and pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong who is the former chief researcher for Demosisto. “But their presence on social media can sometimes shift the conversation in directions that are unpleasant to people who are actually fighting for democracy.”
Ngo doesn’t engage in debate with tankies, but often highlights tankie takes in order to criticize them on his social media.
The most pressing concern, in his view, is that tankies often distort the premise of debates around human rights in greater China by disputing well-documented claims, taking the discussion in less constructive directions. Another important aspect, he said, is the struggle over defining what it means to be a leftist: to support or to go against these regimes. If the Marxist-Leninist segment of the far-left manages to secure a monopoly on what it means to be leftists, that would make it much harder for non-tankie left-wingers to promote their cause. That’s significant because many of the people who stand up to tankies consider themselves leftists.
It has even reached a point where some Hong Kongers accuse people like Ngo — who as a member of Demosisto and a spokesperson for democracy in Hong Kong has been admired as a champion of the protest movement — of being tankies because of their left-wing views.
Ngo attributed the appeal of tankie ideology to its appearance as an alternative to the current liberal world order, which has caused lots and lots of suffering for people outside the West.
“They’re starting with their fundamental worldview, which is that the liberal international order is flawed. That’s the first half of the argument. The second is that China presents an alternative to that liberal international order, so China is always on the right side.”
“And, of course, that worldview is fundamentally flawed. Because, as I always say, China does not present an alternative to whatever order that these people are upset with,” said Ngo. “China is an integral part of it.”