A hundred years ago this month, on May 4, 1919, demonstrations erupted in China as students, primarily from Peking University, poured into Tiananmen Square to protest events half a world away, where western nations – primarily Britain and France – meeting in Versailles decided to transfer the colonial possessions of a defeated Germany in Shandong province to Japan, which like China was an ally in the anti-German war, rather than returning them to China.
The May 4th demonstrations changed China. While they were touched off by the conference held to mark the end of World War I, the protests were actually a loud call for reform in China. In a matter of weeks, the protests were elevated to the status of a movement. Luo Jialun, one of the principal student leaders, wrote in an article that the spirit of the May Fourth Movement was a challenge to arbitrary authority.
Post-May 4, the students organized themselves. On May 5, the Peking University Student Association was established with Duan Xipeng elected as president. The following day, 3,000 representatives met in the Peking University auditorium and formed a citywide Student Union, again with Duan elected president.
These events were occurring at a time of intellectual ferment in China. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1911 but warlords, not elected leaders, had taken over. There was a proliferation of journals and much discussion of the need to modernize, in part by writing in the vernacular to make it easier for people to have access to the Chinese classics.
There was much concern that the country was being held back by its traditions, in particular, by Confucianism. Many felt that it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Confucius and to welcome Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy.
A century later, Mr. Science is well entrenched, with China having landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon. However, Mr. Democracy is unwelcome, with the Communist Party insisting on a permanent monopoly on power.
Nonetheless, the party has hijacked the May 4th Movement, claiming credit for it. Coming as it did two years after the October Revolution in 1917, which resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union, it seemed plausible to argue that Marxist ideas had spread into China and influenced student activists of the time.
Last week, Xi Jinping delivered an hour-long address in which he hailed the May 4th student leaders as patriots who opposed imperialism and feudalism. However, he told today’s students that their job was to “follow the instructions and guidance of the Party”. Patriotism now means obedience.
Student protests before 1949 were almost invariably deemed as patriotic. Now, they are suppressed. The 1989 Tiananmen protests were labeled counterrevolutionary.
Party leaders who sympathize with student protesters suffer severe consequences. Hu Yaobang, then party general secretary, failed to crack down on widespread student protests in 1986 and was forced to step down in 1987.
Zhao Ziyang, his successor, opposed the decision to send troops into Tiananmen Square to deal with protesters. For this, he was expelled from the party and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Despite the party’s narrative that the May 4th demonstrators were guided by Marxist thinking, none of the student leaders became prominent within the party. Chen Duxiu, a dean at Peking University whose writings were influential, was a founding member of the party but he was expelled in 1929.
Duan Xipeng, who was elected the first president of the Peking University Student Association on May 5, 1919, joined the Kuomintang and took part in the anti-Communist purge of 1927. He died in 1948 of lung cancer.
Fu Sinian was “marshal” of the parade, marching in front holding a banner followed by a huge column of students. He became a top educator and linguist and was one of the founders of Academia Sinica. He left for Taiwan after the Communist victory in the civil war and was appointed chancellor of Taiwan University.
Luo Jianlun was the student who drafted a manifesto calling on citizens across the country to “hold citizens’ meetings to secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs”. Luo in later years served as minister of education. He was appointed ambassador to India in 1947. When India recognized the People’s Republic of China, he went to Taiwan.
Such student leaders in the May 4th Movement of 1919 clearly weren’t influenced by Marxist thinking. Rather, they were acting because they saw their nation in peril. Three years later, in Washington, Japan and China signed a treaty for the restoration of Shandong province to China.
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