Xi Jinping Tries to Crash the May Fourth Movement’s Centenary
For China’s aging political leadership, certain anniversaries teeter between the emblematic and the problematic. On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping stood in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, one of the most consequential social protests in Chinese history, in which students agitated against the incompetence of the country’s authoritarian leaders. Xi told “China’s youth” today to love their motherland, and to “obey the party and follow the Party.” He also urged them to study the May Fourth Movement, and added that “those who are unpatriotic, who would even go so far as to cheat and betray the motherland, are a disgrace in the eyes of their own country and the whole world.”
Xi was taking a risk: the legacy of the May Fourth Movement is a complicated one, and to study its history is to confront the central hypocrisy of the Communist Party. The May Fourth Movement grew out of frustration with foreign aggression and the failure of the government to protect its citizens and its territory. On May 4, 1919, students from Peking University took to the streets to denounce the Treaty of Versailles, which allowed Japan to occupy the former German Concession in the coastal province of Shandong, territory that had been held by the German Empire prior to the First World War, instead of ceding control of it to China. More important, the leaders of the movement declared their ambition to make the country anew: to dismantle the bureaucracies, topple the hierarchies, and emancipate China from its feudal roots. They were joined by thousands of students from other universities, and marched to Tiananmen Square. There was some rioting, and a number of students were beaten and arrested, as the protests spread to other cities, but, after a general strike was called in June, they were released. Their actions are often credited with ushering China into the modern era.
The night before the protests, as students assembled in a lecture hall, one of them brandished a knife and declared that he’d rather cut his own throat than endure the pain of witnessing China’s humiliation. But no one embodied the revolutionary fervor more than Chen Duxiu, a dean at the university, who joined a Marxist study group there and published a journal, called New Youth, in which he wrote, “I, with tears, place my plea before the fresh and vital youth, in the hope that they will achieve self-awareness and begin to struggle. What is this self-awareness? It is to be conscious of the value and possibility of one’s young life.” Chen devoted an issue of the journal to a Marxist critique of Chinese society that gained widespread attention and, several months after the protests, he was forced to resign from the university. He was jailed for three months for distributing inciteful literature, and, after his release, moved to the French Concession in Shanghai. Two years later, he became a co-founder of the Communist Party.
It’s a matter of some inconvenience for present-day leaders that the Party so quickly became the kind of dictatorial, bureaucratic behemoth that its founders had tried to banish, and that so much of its history betrayed its original principles—during the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, which coincided with the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, troops fired on crowds of civilians, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, and thousands more were arrested. And, although Xi has made a show of officially embracing the spirit of May 4th, universities are once again the focus of a crackdown. In March, the prestigious Tsinghua University, whose students had marched in 1919, suspended Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who had published a series of essays denouncing Xi’s authoritarian tendencies. They are the kind of work that would have found a home in New Youth a hundred years ago.
Then, earlier this week, six Peking University students disappeared, and are believed to have been detained. They are part of a new movement of young Marxist activists who have taken up the cause of labor conditions in China, working alongside manual laborers and organizing protests. Dozens of them have been detained across the country in recent months. “If doing this kind of manual labor makes me disappear, everyone knows who did it,” Qiu Zhanxuan, the former president of the Peking University Marxist Society, wrote on his social-media page.
Chen Duxiu might have recognized this dynamic. He was named the general secretary of the Communist Party, but he clashed with another of the founding members, Mao Zedong, and was pushed out of the position, in 1927. Two years later, Chen was expelled from the Party, on account of his appeal for greater democracy within the ranks. He was later told that he could rejoin if he renounced certain of his positions, but he refused. In 1942, he died, forgotten, in the countryside. After Mao’s death, Chen was rehabilitated as a symbol of patriotism. Were he alive today, however, it’s unclear if he would again accept membership in the Party that he helped found.