Most people outside China will be unaware of it, but the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement is a significant moment for the Chinese. It marks the day on May 4th, 1919 that students took to the streets in Beijing to express their fury at the then government’s failure to defend their nation’s interests during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations.
May Fourth has since been studied from every possible angle and perspective, with different observers drawing different interpretations of the day’s precise significance.
The Communist Party of China (CPC), for one, sees itself as the heir to the May Fourth Movement. Some historians, particularly international ones, beg to differ, noting that the two main tenets of the original movement were de xiansheng ( ‘Mr Democracy’) and sai xiansheng ( ‘Mr Science’), with the former theme problematic for the CPC.
One thing most agree on, though, is that May Fourth was a turning point in the country’s history. Indeed, the CPC even marked the 100th anniversary of the protests this week with a rare political rally led by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. So what is the latest spin on a student movement that reshaped China? And why is understanding it so important to understanding modern-day China?
What exactly is the May Fourth Movement?
The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes it as the “intellectual revolution and sociopolitical reform movement that occurred in China in 1917-21”. That description is partly credited to Chow Tse-tsung, who was invited to write the initial entry for the topic in the encyclopaedia after the Harvard University Press published his seminal study The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China in 1959. Chow’s book is still the starting point for anyone researching the period. (He obtained his PhD on the topic at the University of Michigan, although his supervisors were initially said to be opposed to his selection of a “student riot” not thought worthy of doctoral research.)
According to Chow, events began with the New Culture Movement that emerged in China shortly after the 1911 revolution. More than two millennia of imperial rule had abruptly ended but the republic that replaced it remained the “sick man of east Asia”. In the absence of a strong central government, the nation was riven between regional warlords and was powerless to revoke the “unequal treaties” forced upon the previous Qing Dynasty regime by foreign powers.
In the wake of growing encroachment from Japan, young intellectuals began searching for solutions that could revitalise their country’s standing. Their inquiry into different models of governance led them to study ideologies alien to China – such as liberalism and socialism – and they soon forged a movement that blamed traditional Chinese values and institutions for the country’s parlous state.
One of the cheerleaders of this intellectual charge was Chen Duxiu, who founded the influential monthly magazine New Youth. Chen and many of the young writers who contributed to New Youth were later to become cultural and political leaders. They included Hu Shi, the American-educated scholar who proposed a new vernacular writing style to replace the 2,000 year-old classical standard; Lu Xun, one of the greatest figures in 20th century Chinese literature (famed for his attacks on Confucian values); and a certain Mao Zedong (although it was Chen, not Mao, who would later become the CPC’s first leader).
The movement grabbed even greater prominence on May 4th, 1919 after patriotic students demonstrated against decisions imposed on China at the peace negotiations in Versailles. The protestors came from about a dozen or so colleges in Beijing, marking the first large-scale student demo since China’s education system had converted from Confucian-style teaching to more Western-inspired universities.
Why were the students so upset?
China declared itself neutral at the start of the First World War and warned foreign powers not to fight each other on Chinese soil. These wishes were ignored when Japan sent troops to Qingdao in Shandong province to oust the Germans from their concession there (Japan’s only battle during the Great War).
Knowing it could not drive the Japanese soldiers out of Shandong, the Chinese government turned to the Allies and declared war on Germany in 1917 as well. Some 140,000 Chinese, largely from Shandong, were recruited as non-combatant workers and sent to help the Entente forces in Europe. (According to a report by the Guardian newspaper in 2014, at least 20,000 of this forgotten Chinese Labour Corps died doing dangerous work such as clearing minefields and digging trenches.)
In return the Chinese hoped that the Shandong peninsula would be wrested from Japanese control in the post-war settlement. Nevertheless, none of China’s demands were taken seriously by the trio of decisionmakers (Britain, France and the US) after hostilities ceased. The resulting Treaty of Versailles even granted formal approval to the Japanese to take over former German concessions in China.
After learning what had been decided in Paris, some 3,000 students took to the streets in Beijing and protested in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations swept through the rest of the country as workers went on strike as well. The primary target of the protest was Japan, with the demonstrators calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. They also demanded an end to the extraterritorial privileges of other foreign powers on Chinese soil. Much of the anger, of course, was vented at their own government.
How did May Fourth lead to the CPC’s rise?
The quest for a new style of government – as a means to rejuvenate the country – now took on a new urgency for Chinese intellectuals. More than 400 publications sprang up to spread new ideas and ideologies. Science and democracy were two of the focal points for the new thinking, serving as the Chinese equivalent to the French Revolution motto of “liberte, egalite, fraternite”.
“We believe only these two gentlemen can bring salvation from all the political, cultural and intellectual darkness in China,” Chen Duxiu wrote in New Youth in 1919.
Other ideologies and beliefs were competing to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Confucian values.
Recent research has noted that of the 1,529 articles published in Chen’s New Youth from 1915 to 1926, only three focused specifically on the merits of democracy. On the contrary, one third of the articles were about socialism.
This recent effort to “quantify” the “May Fourth spirit”, published by a historian at Peking University in 2016, has been disputed. Nevertheless it points to an argument the CPC makes: that many intellectuals, possibly inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, were turning to Marxism as the best means to modernise China.
Thanks to the influence of New Youth, Chen Duxiu was a rock star for students at the time. He was also turning leftward politically – stirred by how the Bolsheviks had revived an underdeveloped nation through the overthrow of the tsar. His sympathy with liberal views was further strained by what he saw as the broken promises of the major democracies during the Versailles negotiations.
Chen was imprisoned for a few months for his role in provoking the May Fourth uprisings and shortly after his release he became a Marxist in Shanghai. With backing from the Comintern (the international organisation that advocated world communism), he founded a communist group and in July 1921 the first National Party Congress of the CPC was held with 13 attending members (see WiC380). They elected Chen as Party secretary and he would lead the Party for the next seven years. He was expelled from the CPC shortly afterwards – a victim of one of the perennial power struggles between its senior figures.
Another of the CPC’s founding members was Mao Zedong. The 28 year-old was working as a librarian at Peking University when the New Culture Movement came to prominence. He witnessed firsthand how a student-led uprising had challenged traditional values and he worked closely with Chen, whom Mao later described to the journalist Edgar Snow as having more influence on reshaping his thinking than anyone else.
When Mao became China’s leader in 1949, he claimed that the May Fourth Movement was an essential step towards the fulfillment of his Communist revolution. Some have argued that May Fourth might have had another fateful influence too: providing a precedent for Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its attack on traditional Confucian practices.
How is the CPC celebrating the anniversary of May Fourth?
With founding members such as Chen taking a leading role, the CPC sees itself as the rightful heir to events a hundred years ago. In 1999 and 2009 the members of the ruling Politburo turned up for gatherings to commemorate May Fourth and the Party held another high-profile meeting on Tuesday to celebrate the 100th anniversary, with President Xi addressing the rally.
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper noted that it was the first time that the Party’s most senior leader had given a keynote speech in commemoration of May Fourth since Mao’s day. The movement, Xi proclaimed, gave birth to a great revolutionary spirit among Chinese students, including “patriotism, progress, democracy and science, with patriotism at the core”.
“It is very shameful if a person isn’t patriotic, or even deceives or betrays the motherland,” Xi declared. “In contemporary China, the essence of patriotism is to combine one’s love for the country with love for the Party and socialism.”
Were comparisons made to the students of today?
Xi was addressing an audience at the Great Hall of the People, mainly attended by members of the Youth League of the CPC. “Refuse to be opportunistic and stay away from thinking oneself too clever. Think about where your happiness comes from and understand how to repay it with a grateful heart. Thank the Party, thank the country and thank society and the people,” he told those attending.
Some of the footage of the speech on state television sparked debates online. In it, one group of students in purple shirts is seen lounging in their seats and talking amongst themselves. In contrast, representatives from the Chinese navy are sitting ramrod straight just behind them, almost as if they are taking part in a parade. One inference, netizens thought, was that the students have something to learn about discipline and respect from their peers in the military
Not that the students would be encouraged to repeat the endeavours of their more celebrated predecessors. Back in 1919 the students led marches, established protest groups and published journals in a wave of cultural activism.
Similar enthusiams are frowned upon by the authorities today. Indeed students from a number of leading universities have taken to the streets touting their Marxist beliefs in arguing for workers’ rights over the last year. News of these protests has been curtailed in the domestic media and their organisers have been investigated and detained.
Of course, the authorities in Beijing will also be very aware that another key anniversary is approaching – this time marking what Xinhua has termed the “political turmoil between the Spring and Summer of 1989”.
Hence Xi’s speech this week focused squarely on the patriotic sentiment of the May Fourth Movement, largely omitting the calls of the time for democracy.
Nor were there any commemorative marches or rallies to remember the events of a century ago, reflecting the official disapproval of mass gatherings of this kind. Instead the celebration was carefully calibrated in a closed-door meeting, with Xi’s speech as the centrepiece.
A sensitive year for commemorations of historical events?
“Anniversaries, especially of events that the authorities see as worth marking, are important because they can open up space for gatherings and for discussions of the past that can easily incorporate criticisms of the present,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, told the Financial Times.
“A central conundrum of today’s China is that the authorities seem to have things well under control, yet remain twitchy [about any potential for discontent],” he added.
That kind of interpretation is backed by those who believe that the sudden announcement of three extra days of official holiday around May 1 – Labour Day in China – was a strategy to keep things calm in a busy year of key anniversaries.
(An alternative interpretation: it was another effort to stimulate the economy by boosting spending on shopping and tourism.)
There are more anniversaries to follow this year, including October 1 celebrations of 70 years since Mao proclaimed the founding of a “new China” in Tiananmen Square. The propaganda machine looks set to go all out in promoting that date. Expect calls for a nationwide rejoicing of China’s rejuvenated status on the world stage.
Perhaps one key lesson that Western policymakers can derive from May Fourth is what the China of a hundred years ago means to Xi. Back in 1919 decisions about Chinese sovereignty were made in a foreign city by Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau. They stirred a defiant response from a proud nation.
Since then there have been other moments of suffering and humiliation at foreign hands, especially during the Second World War when Japan sought to conquer the entire Chinese mainland.
Fast forward to 2019 and the message from 1919 is a potent one for Xi. Simply put, he cannot be seen to give ground on any issue relating to Chinese sovereignty. That impacts China’s ongoing territorial disputes – some involving the ownership of islands (think of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea or the clashes with Japan over the area it terms the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyus) as well as its border disagreements with India (see WiC374).
The legacy of May 4, 1919 is a major one: where China sees its territorial sovereignty under threat there will be not an inch of compromise and in the decade ahead that could have major ramifications for regional stability and, most especially, the future of Taiwan.
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