HONG KONG — Ninety years ago this week, thousands of students from Peking University and elsewhere gathered in the then much smaller Tiananmen Square before marching through the city in protest.
They were demonstrating against a predatory Japan and against the Western powers’ decision to appease Japan by letting it take over German concessions in Shandong province rather than return them to China after Germany’s defeat in World War I.
But, most of all, they were protesting against a weak Chinese government, unable to safeguard China’s rights, and a weak China. The intellectuals — Chinese students then and now saw themselves as intellectuals — advocated Western learning, believing that Confucianism was responsible for the country’s backwardness. They called for two Western concepts, Science and Democracy, personified as Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy.
The demonstrations on May 4, 1919, unleashed an emotional and intellectual torrent that swept the country, with those events remembered to this day as the May Fourth Movement. The nationalist tide led to the formation of the Communist Party of China two years later.
In fact, Communist identification with the 1919 protesters was so strong that the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square contains engravings that depict the May Fourth demonstrators.
Those events continue to be observed, with May 4 designated as Youth Day. And so, President Hu Jintao on Saturday, May 2, urged young Chinese at the Agricultural University in Beijing to embrace four qualities — patriotism, diligence, practice and devotion to rejuvenate the Chinese nation.
By turning May 4 into Youth Day and telling today’s youth how they should live their lives, the Communist Party is trying to co-opt the spirit of May 4 as well as the idealism of young people today. However, this does not always work. The May Fourth Movement itself, too, continues to be commemorated. The official China Daily published an article headlined “Legacy of May Fourth Movement endures.” It said: “Participants of the movement awakened hundreds of millions of Chinese people to the enthusiastic patriotic spirit, and achieved unprecedented social mobilization with its incisive slogan ‘defend our sovereignty and punish the traitors.’ “
But author Qin Xiaoying, a researcher with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, while extolling the ideals of science and democracy, was careful to say “there are different understandings on democracy.”
Twenty years ago, the students massed in Tiananmen Square, too, saw themselves as the heirs of the May Fourth Movement. On that day in 1989, despite a government prohibition, thousands of students from Peking University, Qinghua University, Beijing Normal University, the China University of Political Science and Law, and other universities marched from their respective campuses to Tiananmen Square, their banners flapping in the wind.
Last year, when several thousand intellectuals issued a new manifesto called Charter 08 — in imitation of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 more than three decades ago – they, too, appealed to the spirit of May 4. They analyzed the root causes of China’s problems of the last two centuries, saying the “shock of the Western impact upon China in the 19th century laid bare a decadent authoritarian system” while the “self-strengthening movement” that followed “aimed simply at appropriating the technology to build gunboats and other Western material objects.”
“The May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s,” Charter 08 said, led to “the championing of ‘science and democracy.’ Yet that effort, too, foundered as warlord chaos persisted and the Japanese invasion brought national crisis.”
Clearly, the May Fourth Movement did not solve China’s problems. But at least people in China today can talk about it and the participants are honored as patriots. But people are not allowed to discuss the events that occurred in spring 1989 that culminated with the bloodletting June 4.
Similarly, they are not allowed to talk about Charter 08, whose main author, Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned previously for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, is again in prison, this time without benefit of trial, for his role in drafting Charter 08.
Since the drive was launched in the 1970s to achieve the “Four Modernizations” — agriculture, industry, science-technology, and defense — the country has been incredibly successful in all these realms. Today, China is planning to build an aircraft carrier and to land a man on the moon.
Thus, Mr. Science’s achievements are self-evident. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Mr. Democracy. The concept of democracy itself has been twisted beyond recognition. The dreams of the May Fourth protesters remain unfulfilled.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)