In a country whose leadership has little tolerance for open dissent, it is rare to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping praise a student protest against the government.
Speaking in Beijing on the 100th anniversary of the May 4 student movement, a critical moment in Chinese history, Xi hailed it as a “great patriotic revolutionary movement.”
He called on the nation’s young people to embrace the “May 4 movement spirit,” and love their motherland.
But the ruling Communist Party’s praise and professed reverence for the May 4 protests contrasts sharply with its attitude to other modern Chinese student protest movements.
A growing climate of political censorship and suppression has pervaded university campuses in the country in recent years. Even being an avowed Marxist can’t save you – several high-profile left-wing student activists have disappeared since June 2018 after campaigning for workers’ rights.
Despite Xi’s latest remarks, few on campus seem to believe that the spirit of May 4 guides Chinese youth today.
“In the May 4 era, the students’ behavior resonated with the whole country,” said Peking University graduate Yang Tinghan.
“But today, not even Peking University students stand by (their activist classmates) – so how can society be changed in this way?”
Democracy protests in Beijing
Like his predecessors, Xi has been eager to link the May 4 Movement to the birth of the Chinese Communist Party.
On May 4, 1919, student demonstrators took to the streets in huge numbers to protest the outcome of the post-World War I peace conference in Paris, which they viewed as a humiliation for China.
Even though China was on the winning side, the Western powers decided to hand sovereignty of the city of Qingdao from a defeated Germany to Japan, which had conquered the port during the war.
As thousands of students marched towards Tiananmen Gate, Japanese goods and books were piled up and burned on the streets. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai.
In his speech on Tuesday, Xi declared that “the May 4 Movement promoted the spread of Marxism in China, helped Marxism and the Chinese workers’ movement unite.”
But this is only part of the story. Students’ outrage in 1919 was also directed against their own government which had failed to protect the nation’s interests. For many intellectuals, especially those from the prestigious Peking University, the loss of Qingdao was a sign that China was in dire need of political reform.
“The May 4 intellectuals were very patriotic and bemoaning the fact China was being called ‘the sick man of Asia’ at the time,” said David Moser, author of A Billion Voices, a book about the May 4 movement’s cultural impact. “They wanted to import Western ideologies in order to save China.”
The dean of Peking University at the time, Chen Duxiu, coined two catchphrases to summarize the student demands: “Mr. Democracy” and “Mr. Science.” Chen wrote in his magazine New Youth in 1919: “Only these two ‘gentlemen’ can save China from the political, moral, academic and intellectual darkness in which it finds itself.”
Chen would go on to help found the Communist Party – only to be discredited and expelled in 1929 for his support for democratic institutions such as a free press. In his speech, Xi mentioned democracy and science as main components of the May 4 movement but not Chen or any calls for reform.
“The Party claims to have developed its own form of ‘democracy,’ which involves having a government that listens to and acts on behalf of the people but does not have open elections,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor at University of California Irvine.
The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to obscure the true legacies of the May 4 movement, especially since the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989.
“The references and parallels made by the Tiananmen student protesters to the May 4 Movement were very explicit,” said Moser, who was living on campus at Peking University at the time.
The 100th anniversary of the May 4 protests falls just a month before the 30th anniversary of the brutal military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square.
Estimates of the death toll range from hundreds to thousands. No official mention is made of the Tiananmen Massacre in state media and the topic is strictly censored online.
“The closest tie between June 4 and May 4 came when students read out a ‘New May 4 Manifesto’ on the 70th anniversary of the 1919 protest,” said Wasserstrom.
Since then, the Chinese government has worked hard to avoid a repeat of the 1989 protests. Eager to prevent the May 4 anniversary from becoming a rallying point for political activism, the Communist Party has used the date as an excuse to flatter China’s youth.
In his speech on Tuesday, Xi lavished praise on the Chinese youth, hailing their passion, patriotism and creativity, saying they were a “leading force” in China’s national rejuvenation.
‘Not the place to talk politics’
Today, on the campus that sprouted the May 4 Movement, open criticism of the government is almost non-existent as authorities tighten their grip on universities nationwide.
Communist Party branches on campus are increasingly tasked with monitoring and reporting on the political views of students and teachers.
But until recently, Peking University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, had still seen its tradition of political activism live on among some students.
“Everyone knows that (Chinese social media) is not the place to talk politics but our alumni seem to be very carefree in that sense,” said Yang, the Peking University graduate.
But in a sign of the leadership’s growing intolerance of student activism, the Party doesn’t even see eye to eye with Peking University’s shade of “red” ideology anymore.
In April 2018, a group of students made headlines when they put up posters around campus accusing their university of abandoning its “May 4 values” after a fellow student and self-proclaimed Marxist, Yue Xin, was allegedly harassed by school officials.
Since then, the situation has only worsened. A number of young Marxist activists, including Yue, have disappeared after calling for workers’ rights. Some were even abducted from the campus itself.
Many current students, though, have not been inspired by their activist classmate and view them as ideologues.
“Their Marxist extremism is just like Islamic extremism,” said Yesen Nurbayev, an ethnic Kazakh student.
“They will compare themselves to the founding Marxists but those leaders thought about the whole Chinese nation, not just the working class,” he added.
Working with the government
As the centennial of the movement draws near, the reformist spirit of the May 4 protests is still publicly celebrated. “Free thought and all-embracing tolerance,” two values famously preached by the 1919 university leadership, remain the school’s often-touted distinctive identity.
But in recent years, Peking University’s Communist Party branch has ensured that its legacy does not prompt questioning of the status quo.
The People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece, in 2017 published an interview with Hao Ping, then-Party chief at the university.
The article, besides regurgitating official Party history, was a clear attempt to flatter Xi. The leader’s “Chinese Dream” slogan – a vision of national rejuvenation in contrast to past national humiliation – was mentioned in all of Hao’s answers.
Yang, like the vast majority of his schoolmates, believes student idealism in this day and age must be channeled towards working with – rather than against – the government.
“If you cannot lead a movement for social change, you should try and become the person who decides policy,” he said.