Sunday February 23, 2020

The May Fourth Movement Remembered

May 1, 2019

Beijing University students who participated in the May Fourth Movement (Wikimedia Commons)

Beijing University students who participated in the May Fourth Movement  (Wikimedia Commons)

This year marks a multitude of important anniversaries for China. It’s the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the 40th anniversary of the establishment of official U.S.-China diplomatic relations, the 30th anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Incident, and so on. Amongst so much history, it is easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed trying to interpret the importance and modern day relevance of remembering China’s past. Still, there is another anniversary far less familiar to most Western observers that should not be overlooked – the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.

To truly appreciate the significance of the 1919 demonstrations making up the May Fourth Movement, it is important to first understand China’s Century of Humiliation. China’s Century of Humiliation refers to the period between 1839 and 1949, starting with the Opium Wars and Western imperialism, continuing with Japanese occupation, and finally ending with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This period of suffering at the hands of foreign powers is a major scar in China’s collective conscious, one that is often used as a tool by the Chinese government to bolster nationalism and legitimize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China’s official narrative frames the CCP as the hero putting an end to China’s Century of Humiliation with the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the protector, saving China from future humiliation while helping the country reclaim its former strength and glory. China’s Century of Humiliation, however, did not end overnight. Before a New China could form, the country had to go through a period of reflection, discovery, and change. They had to consider why China, once the powerful Middle Kingdom, had fallen behind and was left venerable to imperialist powers. A pivotal point in this development was the May Fourth Movement.

By the early 1900s, the Qing leadership’s failures had led to the fall of Imperial China’s last dynasty. In its aftermath, the new government floundered and warlordism was prevalent. China’s intellectuals searched for answers to China’s recent shortcomings. This led to the New Culture Movement, where prominent Chinese scholars began to question the efficacy of classical Chinese teachings – Confucianism in particular – in the modern world. They hoped to form a new culture, embracing new values and ideas, such as science and democracy, that would allow them to keep up with the West.

Central to this movement was Hu Shih (1891-1962), a scholar who had studied at Cornell and Columbia Universities before returning to China and teaching at Beijing University. Hu and many other leaders of the movement took what they learned from the U.S. to inspire change in their home county. He championed the use of a more accessible vernacular language style in literature as well of the use of scientific and pragmatic methods of research he had learned from his professor John Dewey (1859-1952). Hu would later go on to serve as the Republic of China’s ambassador to the U.S. (1938-1942).

Hu Shih (Wikimedia Commons)

Hu Shih (1891-1962)
(Wikimedia Commons)

The New Culture Movement ultimately evolved into more than just an academic pursuit, with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles serving as a key trigger and focal point. The Republic of China leadership had supported the Allied Powers in WWI with the understanding that the territory controlled by Germany would be returned to China after the war. The Treaty of Versailles, however, turned Shandong Province over to Japan. The government’s failures at the Paris Peace Conference sparked days of protest from university students in Beijing.

On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from multiple universities gathered in Tiananmen. The students protested the terms of the Versailles Treaty specifically, but it was also a wider nationalist, political, and anti-imperialist movement. Protests continued and spread. The Chinese representatives ultimately did not sign the Versailles Treaty, even if the move was only symbolic.

May Fourth protesters in Tiananmen (Wikimedia Commons)

May Fourth protesters in Tiananmen (Wikimedia Commons)

The true victory of the movement, however, was its ability to reach and organize large groups of people discussing new ideas and calling for reform. It energized and even radicalized political movements. People wanted to put an end to the old Chinese values they saw as leaving China weak and join under a new culture to revitalize the country. The May Fourth Movement is seen as a major turning point in China, a break from its Confucian past, and a pivotal step in the development of a modern China. This spirit of unrest and protest is cited as a key inspiration for the 1921 establishment of the Chinese Communist Party.

Although the concept of revolution was a primary element in the birth of the CCP, the party today has taken major steps to prevent any new uprisings. Civil society is heavily controlled, protests stifled, and open debate limited. As the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement arrives, China’s Communist Party leadership is faced with the seemingly contradictory task of embracing this important part of its own history while simultaneously taking steps to prevent similar protests against its own leadership.

In order to do this, the leadership is carefully crafting the official memory of the May Fourth Movement. Certain aspects of the movement, such as its nationalism, anti-imperialism, and criticism of classical Chinese philosophies, have the potential to fit the CCP’s modern-day narrative. Other components, however, like calls for democracy, mass protests, and anger directed towards the leadership, do not.

Xi Jinping has opted to shape the anniversary of these student protests into a celebration of patriotism and the important role China’s youth has in supporting the Party. In a recent speech to students celebrating the anniversary, Xi Jinping positioned the Chinese Communist Party as the successor to the May Fourth Movement and called on the students to show their patriotism through support of the CCP. He said, “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.”

This approach is in line with other recent efforts to specifically influence China’s youth. For example, Xi Jinping has tightened control on school curriculum, calling on teachers to “nurture generation after generation [of young people] who support Chinese Communist Party rule and China’s socialist system.”  This year, the CCP also released a propaganda smart phone app, “Study the Great Nation,” aimed at reaching more of China’s youth in the technology age.

Even though the Communist Party has worked to re-brand the May Fourth Movement, which predated the founding of the CCP, as a youth celebration of patriotism and support for the party, the true significance and lessons of the May Fourth Movement remain. It shows the power of the Chinese people, their ability to gather, examine their past, and redefine their values and culture in the hope of revitalizing their country. It also serves as a warning to the current leadership of what might happen if they fail to adapt to global circumstances and keep the country strong or are unable to maintain the support of the people.

For Western observers, this anniversary is also important. American scholars, policymakers, and the public have very limited understanding of China’s history. But for China, history plays an important role in the way their modern identity, government legitimacy, and policy decisions are crafted. For example, China has not forgotten the Western imperialism of China’s Century of Humiliation that students protested against during the May Fourth Movement. Today, however, the United States has replaced Europe in that role for China, leaving them wary and distrustful of American actions and policies. Both the actual events of the past and the way China chooses to officially remember – or misremember – these milestones offer important insights that are still relevant to understanding today’s China.

By Ariane Rosen