Xi Jinping

By:  Ian Buruma

NEW YORK – This month marks the centenary of one of the most important cultural and political episodes in modern Chinese history: the May Fourth Movement. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students and intellectuals launched a massive protest in Beijing, demanding the end of “feudalism” and more political freedom. A century later, it is officially celebrated by a Communist dictatorship that allows no protest, let alone one led by students. May 4 inspired another revolt, in Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989, which is not even allowed to be mentioned in public.

But May 4 is too important to ignore or suppress, so Chinese President Xi Jinping had to commemorate the occasion, somewhat diffidently, by calling for “Chinese youth of the new era” to be “brave in their struggles” and live up to “the spirit of May 4.” Even as he said this, student dissidents at Peking University were being arrested for expressing subversive ideas that might upset the official celebrations.

What exactly was the spirit of May 4? The ostensible reason for the protests was the handover of German territories in eastern China to the Japanese, as mandated by the Treaty of Versailles, and accepted by the Chinese government. This was seen as a blow to Chinese patriotism, and a typical sign of national weakness and corruption. But the movement was about much more. Like the European Enlightenment, which served indirectly as one of its inspirations, May 4 represented many things: free love, artistic experimentation, feminism, socialism, educational reform, and so on. The two symbols of May 4, brandished rather like the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square in 1989, were “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.”

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The initiators of May 4 were mostly students and faculty of Peking University. The university’s president, Cai Yuanpei, advocated intellectual freedom, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance. The dean, Chen Duxiu, was a Marxist revolutionary who later led the Communist Party of China before being pushed aside by Mao Zedong. Hu Shih, the university’s most distinguished philosopher, was a promoter of language reform who abhorred ideological extremism. His model was John Dewey, the American philosopher and educational reformer.

The students, too, were divided between radical activists who demanded violent purges, and more moderate factions. Some of the radicals burned down the house of the politician who negotiated loans from Japan, and beat an ambassador to a pulp. In the end, China did not develop in a liberal direction. A civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the Communists simmered throughout the 1920s and 1930s. After a brutal Japanese occupation, the war erupted in earnest, and in 1949 the Communists won.

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What Xi means by the spirit of May 4 is the extreme leftism, represented by Chen Duxiu, which morphed into Communist dictatorship. The notion that democracy could not develop without science, and that science could progress only in freedom, was distorted by the orthodoxy of scientific socialism.

What is suppressed in the official celebration of May 4 is the more liberal, tolerant, open way of thinking which at first may actually have been the stronger current of the revolt. The greatest literary figure of May 4 was Lu Xun, a brilliant essayist and short-story writer whose free spirit would surely have been crushed by Mao’s regime if he had not died more than a decade before the revolution. Like May 4 itself, however, he, too, has been claimed by the Party as a heroic forebear.

Fissures similar to those that divided May 4 were apparent in 1989, even though the student protesters in that year avoided violence. Some just wanted to negotiate social and political reforms with the government. Others wanted a democratic revolution, and wouldn’t stop before they achieved it.

Matters came to a head when Party leaders refused to give in to the students’ demands and warned of severe repercussions if the students did not end their occupation of Tiananmen Square and other public places across China. Some protesters thought it best to return to their campuses and carry on the struggle quietly; others thought it would be better to die than to give in. The diehards prevailed and the massacre of June 4 duly followed.

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China’s tragic modern political history has led some, inside and outside China, to believe that the Chinese are not ready for liberal democracy, or are even unsuited to it. Many educated Chinese will tell you that democracy would inevitably lead to chaos and violence. That is why millions of Chinese citizens support single-party dictatorship without believing a word of the official Communist ideology. Anything is better than disorder, which has caused such mayhem in the last hundred years.

But the more liberal strands of May 4, and indeed of 1989, should never be forgotten. The writings of Lu Xun, the appeals to reason by Cai Yuanpei, or, in more recent times, by the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, live on as evidence that other possibilities exist in China. There are ways to break the cycle of violent rebellion followed by brutal repression. That is the spirit of May 4 that ought to be remembered and embraced.

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.