Xi Jinping praises a historic student protest. It could never happen today

President Xi Jinping (center) ahead of a speech marking the 100th anniversary of May 4th Movement at Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Beijing (CNN)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?"
    Students of Peking University marching with banners during the May Fourth demonstrations in 1919.

    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."