A century ago, on May 4, 1919, thousands of Chinese students gathered in front of Beijing’s Tiananmen, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” to protest Western imperialism. They urged China to strengthen and modernize by embracing “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.”
The movement was a turning point. China had toppled its last dynasty (the Qing dynasty) in 1911, warlords were fighting for power, the ruling Nationalist government was weak and corrupt, and foreign countries had carved up spheres of influence in China. The last straw was the post-World War I drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, where the Allies granted Japan the former German territories in China even though China had sided with the Allies.
Students took to the streets, protesting outside of foreign embassies and burning down the house of a pro-Japanese government official. Demonstrations broke out in other cities, and Chinese began boycotting and destroying Japanese goods. In the end, officials released students arrested during the protests and symbolically refused the sign the Treaty of Versailles. (The territories still went to Japan.)
Today, President Xi Jinping focuses on the nationalism and patriotism of the event while eliminating any room for new protests or dissent. “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 said at a recent event commemorating the May Fourth Movement, according to The New York Times. “Chinese youth in the new era must obey the party and follow the party.”
The Chinese government presents the so-called May Fourth Movement as the precursor to the 1921 founding of the Communist Party, as some leaders of the movement turned to Marxism as the solution to China’s problems. Russia had just gone through the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and prevalent communist ideas were enticing to these intellectuals.