Skip to main content

A (May) day to remember

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a momentous student protest in Beijing.

A (May) day to remember

Beijing college students march in protest during the May Fourth Movement of 1919. (Military PCF/Alamy Stock Photo)

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.

S. Mikami/AP

Chinese students shout after breaking through a police blockade during a pro-democracy march to Tiananmen Square, Bejing, May 4, 1989. (S. Mikami/AP)

Still, the current Chinese government is concerned about the centennial. Officials extended the May 1 Labor Day holiday an extra three days, hoping it would encourage people to leave town during the anniversary. The 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in 1989 inspired the famous student pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, a demonstration that ended after People’s Liberation Army soldiers with assault rifles and tanks fired at peaceful students, killing thousands of people by some estimates. The government continues to insist its military response was justified.

Jeff Widener/AP

Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, June 5, 1989, one day after the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/AP)

Today, the government views any demonstrations or criticism—even by Marxist student groups—with suspicion: Officials have arrested dozens of labor activists and student supporters who campaigned for better factory working conditions in southern China. In March, the prominent Tsinghua University in Beijing suspended liberal professor Xu Zhangrun for publishing an essay last year denouncing President Xi’s repressive policies, his cult of personality, and the scrapping of term limits. On the internet, Chinese censors have blocked Xu’s articles and others supporting him.

2019 holds other important anniversaries: June 4 will be the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and remains the most sensitive date on the Chinese calendar. Each year on June 4, officials intensify security, send dissidents on forced vacations out of town, and ban any mention of the massacre. A few months later, Oct. 1 will be the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Bible Society in Taiwan

Chinese Union Version Bible (Bible Society in Taiwan)

A Bible translation turns 100:

For Chinese Christians, 2019 marks yet another big anniversary: It’s the centennial of the publication of the Chinese Union Version Bible, the most commonly used Bible translation in the Chinese world.