May Fourth’s Unfulfilled Promise

Spring 2019 is marked by a series of sensitive anniversaries for China: Beijing is visibly nervous that the 30th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen massacre could trigger protests. But it is also concerned about the 100th anniversary of the lesser known May 4 movement, which inspired the 1989 protests and called for greater participation and more transparency in political affairs. Like in 1989, in 1919 it was mainly students who took to the streets—but as the protests continued, journalists, teachers, writers, and intellectuals joined them. They shouted slogans, chanted songs, and held banners, demonstrating against imperialism and for the Chinese right of self-determination. They also demanded freedom, equality, democracy, and education. It was the first purely political public demonstration in Chinese history. And of the two demands of the students—nationalism and democracy—one remains sorely unmet.

The meetings of the victorious Great Powers of the First World War in spring 1919 in the Palace of Versailles triggered the demonstrations. At the peace conference, the Great Powers discussed the post-war order not only in Europe but for much of the colonial world. When it came to dividing up the German colonies, Japan also filed claims. During the war, the Japanese navy helped conquer the former German colony of Kiautschou (today the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao). The Japanese wanted the colony, which they had occupied since 1914, as their own. Despite China’s participation in the conference, the Europeans sanctioned Japan’s control of Kiautschou (Jiaozhou), driving students in Beijing to the streets. Indignant that the European powers disregarded China’s right for territorial self-determination, the students were also angry that their own government proved unable to defend Chinese interests.

Indeed, in 1919, China was weak and on the brink of civil war. China’s 1911 revolution had ushered in a period of political disorder. The first republic in Asia with Sun Yat-sen as its short-lived first president was quickly followed by an equally short-lived constitutional monarchy under Yuan Shikai. With the Qing dynasty rulers removed, neither the republican movement nor any other social group was able to fill the political vacuum. The imperial system was wrecked, but no other institution arose to replace it. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 made the situation even more confusing and unpredictable. As the European powers focused their resources and energies on Europe and withdrew from Asia, Japan saw an irresistible opportunity to obtain Western approval of its territorial gains.

But immediately after the war, a global wave of protests emboldened students and intellectuals to demand emancipation, awakening, and political participation. Reports about anti-colonial protests erupting in the Middle East, India, Korea, and Latin America in spring 1919, as well as intensive contacts and exchanges with different parts of the world, set the stage for the May 4 movement. The worldwide demonstrations suggested two things to the Chinese: that China should participate in this international trend for a new post-imperial era to avoid remaining hopelessly backward; and that the great powers would not grant independence and self-determination without pressure from the colonialized and the oppressed.

The May 4 movement promoted a profound shift of paradigms. In the post-war colonial world, there was a swelling desire for a new start and for a new world without imperialism and inequality. Indeed, the protestors brought about a new, better era in China and elsewhere. But it also meant that, first, there was much to demolish. The vogue word was po (break) or pohuai (destroy), a concept with problematic consequences, which later became a mantra for Mao Zedong. “Destroy!” Chen Duxiu, one of the leaders of the May 4 movement, wrote in his 1918 essay “On Iconoclasm.” “Destroy the idols! Destroy the idols of hypocrisy!” The object of destruction was not only foreign imperialism, but also Chinese tradition—inspiring the intellectual Hu Shi’s famous 1921 catchphrase “down with Confucianism” (dadao Kongjiadian).

The first issue of Chen’s journal, New Youth, included the publisher’s important “Appeal to the Youth,” in which Chen advocated new ideas like cosmopolitanism, self-determination, science, and freedom as central elements of his remedy. Unlike the 19th-century Chinese reformers, Chen believed that what China needed was not merely technological strengthening, but spiritual awakening. At stake was the political survival of China as an independent nation, leading to a two-pronged strategy. The objective was to save China (jiuguo). To achieve this goal, the people, especially the youth, had to be spiritually awakened. Literature and art should inspire a whole new generation of educated activist youth to create a “new China.”

Many Chinese intellectuals and students critiqued the Chinese people as unenlightened, parochial, and foolish (yumin); neither nationalistic nor capable of participating in politics. Such anxiety about the absence of functioning social institutions reflected the scholar Liang Qichao’s early 20th-century call for New Citizens or Sun Yat-sen’s characterization of China as “a sheet of loose sand” (yipan sansha) made up of four hundred million individuals. Nation building, for both Liang and Sun, was to fix the incomplete and fragmentary social institutions so that Chinese society could turn into a cohesive “national social body” (minzu tuanti). The chaos and fighting after the 1911 revolution seemed to confirm the intellectuals’ alarm and demonstrate the pressing need to create enlightened patriotic citizens for a new society. Indeed, May 4 thinkers refused to see the nation-state and the individual as two separate entities. They imagined individuals first and foremost as citizens of the state and members of a new society. The numerous social engineering projects and political campaigns of 20th-century China, such as national reconstruction, the New Life movement, rural reconstruction, and land reform, are all attempts by different political camps to create their ideal society or “new society” and to forge stronger bonds between the state and the people.

The protestors didn’t promote nationalism at the expense of political freedoms. Instead, the nation provided the vehicle to deliver on the promises of the anticolonial protest worldwide. To the protesters, self-determination and democracy were inseparable. Moreover, the May 4 activists desired to replace the principles of Confucianism with new political and social institutions, in order to bring China in line with the modern world. The movement demonstrated that it was possible to mobilize a whole new generation of students, workers, and even merchants across the country, who showed their desire for change and a new beginning through strikes and work stoppages in factories. A political force, in the form of mass mobilization and public protest, demonstrated its power. The May 4 movement stood as a turning point in modern Chinese history—a powerful moment of mass mobilization which inspired future Chinese political movements.

Beijing’s anxiety today about the approaching dates shows that the May 4 ideals of freedom, equality, and self-determination have never stopped resonating in China. The calls for a patriotic, wealthy, strong, yet democratic China articulated on May 4, 1919 have not been forgotten. Students embraced those desires in 1989, and they remain deeply inscribed in the political memory of the nation. This unfulfilled promise is the flip side of China’s unprecedented economic and military rise.