Seventy years ago today, a large group of illustrious students assembled in front of Tiananmen, and a new chapter in the history of China was opened. . . . Today, in front of the symbol of the Chinese nation, Tiananmen, we can proudly proclaim to all the people in our nation that we are worthy of the pioneers of seventy years ago.
From the “New May Fourth Manifesto,” 1989 (as translated in Han Minzhu, ed., Cries for Democracy: Writings and Speeches from 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement)
One month from today, a politically charged Chinese anniversary will be marked in many parts of the world but studiously ignored by the official media of the People’s Republic of China. On June 4, exactly twenty-five years will have passed since soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army turned their weapons on the citizens of Beijing, killing protesters and bystanders near Tiananmen Square. The date of the massacre has given the 1989 struggle one of its most common names, for while it is called other things in English, it is typically known as the “June Fourth Movement” in Chinese.
This eponym carries forward a standard Chinese practice of naming movements after the dates of heroic or tragic events, but it also ties the 1989 struggle to the most important Chinese student-led upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century—a movement whose anniversary, not altogether coincidentally, is today. This was the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a fight for change that—as the manifesto quoted above indicates—the protesters of 1989 had very much on their minds twenty-five years ago. Their “New May Fourth Manifesto” was a daring document, since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership had long staked its own claim to the hallowed patriotic legacy of the 1919 movement, a glorious struggle to protect China from bullying from abroad and misrule at home. Chinese history textbooks insist that the bold protests of the May Fourth Movement—events praised as often in China’s schoolrooms as the Boston Tea Party is in American ones—laid the groundwork for the founding of the CCP in 1921, which in turn led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. As with the Boston Tea Party, the tendency in contemporary politics is to argue not over whether the May Fourth Movement was a good thing, but rather over who has the best right to speak in its name and represent its ideals.
What kinds of grievances and goals were at play ninety-five years ago today? The students who gathered in front of Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace—on ground that in the 1950s would be transformed into a massive plaza filled with revolutionary monuments—were angered by terms in the Treaty of Versailles that would transfer former German territories in China to Japan rather than returning them to Chinese control. The protesting youths, who were strongly influenced by international currents and ideologies but also intensely concerned with a sense that their nation was at a crisis point, gathered to show their patriotism and express their fury at autocratic domestic officials whom they insisted were more intent upon protecting their positions of power and lining their own pockets than doing what was best for the country.
In the weeks that followed, the struggle spread to other cities and became, in part, a fight for the right to protest itself, as so often happens with social movements in authoritarian settings (including that of 1989). The May Fourth Movement peaked with anti-Japanese boycotts in many cities and a general strike in Shanghai; students, workers, and shopkeepers all participated, paralyzing the city and leading three despised government ministers to be dismissed from office. The Treaty of Versailles still went through as planned, but the fall of the officials and the release of arrested protesters meant that the struggle was at least partly victorious.
Like their predecessors, the students of 1989 were influenced by international currents and convinced that the nation they loved deserved to be run by people less corrupt. And they, too, felt that, as intellectuals, they had a special role to speak out when those in power seemed to have lost their moral compass.
When these youth called for a “New May Fourth Movement,” they conjured up memories of both specific protests and also the more general mood of the 1910s, when intellectuals argued that embracing “science and democracy” was the first step toward modernizing China and reclaiming its place as a strong and respected country. Allusions to those two key terms appear in 1989’s “New May Fourth Manifesto” and on banners that the students carried as they rallied—notably, in front of a Tiananmen Square monument whose historical friezes included image of 1919’s student heroes.
In claiming the mantle of 1919, the student protesters of 1989 laid down a direct symbolic challenge to Deng Xiaoping and other Communist Party leaders of the time. Talk of the need for a New May Fourth Movement cast the country’s leaders as successors not to the brave youths of the May Fourth Movement but rather to the despotic members of the “warlord” government that the 1919 protesters despised. The authorities, for their part, sought to compare the students at Tiananmen to the wild Red Guards of the 1960s, who had helped plunge the country into chaos during the Cultural Revolution. The students fired back by insisting that it was the actions of the authorities, including the harsh rhetoric of denunciation they used to discredit the protesters, that harkened back to the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.
China’s 1989 protests, then, were in part a battle of historical analogies. But they were of course much more than that—and more, too, than a simple “democracy movement,” as they are typically remembered in the West. Students were concerned with limits on their personal as well as political freedoms, for example; meanwhile, discontent linked to inflation was widespread, helping to draw workers into streets and squares across the nation. It’s also important to keep in mind that many of the first protest banners called for an end to nepotism and corruption—grievances that are still very much at play today.
What held this often diffuse moment together was something so basic that it almost seems trite to say: a shared sense among the students and those who supported them that China, their beloved country, deserved to be governed by people who lived up to the ideals they espoused. The call was not for the CCP to be overthrown, but for its leaders to do a better job of carrying out things the party claimed to stand for. While officials treated themselves to lavish banquets at the people’s expense—an oft-cited symbol of corruption, then as now—students staged a hunger strike, which was widely interpreted as showing that they were more committed to the common good than those in power.
The May Fourth tradition seems largely dormant today. The government continues to pay lip service to it, invoking 1919 as an important link to the founding of the PRC and reminding schoolchildren that both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were part of the May Fourth generation. But propaganda has turned its focus elsewhere, in particular to China’s rapid economic growth and recent return to a position as one of the world’s most powerful countries. When taken as a group, meanwhile, today’s university students show little sign of having political passions equal to those of their predecessors of twenty-five or ninety-five years ago.
This may partly be because students in 1919, and at various subsequent points when there were calls for a “New May Fourth Movement,” were motivated by the idea that China was lagging behind other countries and needed to shift course to have a shot at becoming modern. Now, there is a sense that China has become “modern,” at least in some material ways. So today’s protests tend to focus not on the need for rapid development, but on its negative impact.
At this juncture, it’s hard to imagine something like 1989 happening again—for one thing, because the government has devoted so much energy over the last twenty-five years to minimizing the chances of a replay. This has taken many forms, including giving students some of the less politicized things—like more control over their private lives, more choices about what to buy, what music to listen to, and generally how to spend their time—that they sought during the 1989 protests.
Much of the official handling of protests since 1989 can be seen as an effort to apply lessons learned then, not just from what happened in China, but also what happened in Eastern and Central Europe. For example, the authorities clamp down early and swiftly on anything that seems to be linking protesters from different regions or social groups. In other, less threatening cases—such as the highly localized, not-in-my-backyard struggles to close toxic plants and stop unpopular development projects, which have taken place in different cities across the country during the last seven years—they let protesters blow off steam. In some cases, the authorities even give in to specific demands, but avoid addressing structural grievances and move to undercut any efforts to set up organizations with a broader than single-issue focus.
Still, we shouldn’t write students off completely. The Communist Party is still nervous enough about them that, even though they were happy enough to see outbursts of anti-NATO sentiment fifteen years ago (when U.S. missiles hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three PRC citizens) and in periodic anti-Japanese upsurges since then, they quickly try to get students off the streets. China’s leaders know that all too often, from 1919 on, students who started out clamoring about the wrongs done by foreigners have segued into complaining about their own rulers as well. We shouldn’t forget that there are tens of thousands of outbursts across China every year, and in many of those, as Alec Ash noted in an essay for this magazine last spring, there are a lot of young participants, if not necessarily always university students.
There are no signs that China is heading toward a new nationwide conflagration. There are myriad issues, though, that inspire outrage and anger, including new grievances tied to worries over such things as tainted food and chemical plant spills. And there’s at least one old grievance that hasn’t gone away and that, in its endurance, links the China of this fourth day of May to those convulsed by protests in 1919 and 1989: a sense among many people that there are individuals in high places who seem to care more about protecting their assets and power than doing what is best for the country they proclaim to love.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and a member of the Dissent editorial board.
This commentary is adapted from two sources: an exchange between the author and Chris Buckley of the New York Times, published on that newspaper’s website on May 1, 2014 as “Q & A: Jeffrey Wasserstrom on History, Dissent and the Power of May 4 in China,” and various sections of the author’s China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a second edition of which, updated with contributions by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.