May 6, 2019 9:19:44 pm
China’s President Xi Jinping last week commemorated the centenary of the May Fourth Movement with a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, during which he juxtaposed a call to the patriotic spirit with the demand that “Chinese youth in the new era must obey the party and follow the party”. What was the movement of May Fourth, and why does China’s government feel compelled to underline the supremacy of the party on its centenary?
At the end of World War I, after western governments ignored the widespread sentiment demanding the return to China of colonial territory in Shandong that Japan had seized from Germany in the war, massive protests erupted in Beijing against the perceived betrayal by both the West and China’s leaders.
The anger was the greatest among students and on college campuses in China’s capital. On May 4, 1919, some 4,000 students gathered at the Gate of Heavenly Peace near Tiananmen and proceeded to place their demands before the Western diplomatic legations. A group of demonstrators attacked the residence of the pro-Japan Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cao Rulin, and set it ablaze.
As the anger and resentment spread, there was an upsurge of nationalism across the country. There were strikes and boycotts in many cities, and as the protests escalated, the government was forced to release the students who had been arrested and sack several officials including Cao Rulin. Chinese negotiators at Versailles refused to sign the treaty. The May Fourth Movement had succeeded in its objective, even if symbolically.
The West’s “betrayal” drove large numbers of Chinese nationalists to look to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as a way to achieve national renewal. China’s Communist Party was founded in 1921, and May Fourth became a part of its iconography, which is now celebrated by the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square.
However, May Fourth also served to inspire generations of student protesters and dissenting intellectuals. The anniversary of the event has long been seen as a potential trigger for social unrest. The massive pro-democracy demonstrations by students and activists at Tiananmen Square in 1989 — attracting, at its height, upto an estimated 1 million people — claimed inspiration from the May Fourth era and the New Culture Movement it spawned, until the Chinese Army crushed it with tanks.
While 1919, and the May Fourth Movement, are seen by many as a turning point in China’s modern history, those events of a century earlier are today also a reason for nervousness for its government, which seeks to put a firm lid over any display of dissent flowing from the core ideas of those heady days of popular nationalist upsurge.
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