An article, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, in Dissent looks at the May Fourth Movements in China to understand what are their common aims.
One month from today, a politically charged Chinese anniversary will be marked in many parts of the world but studiously ignored by the official media of the People’s Republic of China. On June 4, exactly twenty-five years will have passed since soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army turned their weapons on the citizens of Beijing, killing protesters and bystanders near Tiananmen Square. The date of the massacre has given the 1989 struggle one of its most common names, for while it is called other things in English, it is typically known as the “June Fourth Movement” in Chinese.This refrain sounds familiar, not only to the Chinese students, many of whom are idealists and who have now all been silenced, but also to students living in democratic nations; they have not so much been silenced but ignored and made impotent in the face of money and influence. The results might not be the same, but they are uncannily and depressingly similar.
This eponym carries forward a standard Chinese practice of naming movements after the dates of heroic or tragic events, but it also ties the 1989 struggle to the most important Chinese student-led upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century—a movement whose anniversary, not altogether coincidentally, is today. This was the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a fight for change that—as the manifesto quoted above indicates—the protesters of 1989 had very much on their minds twenty-five years ago. Their “New May Fourth Manifesto” was a daring document, since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership had long staked its own claim to the hallowed patriotic legacy of the 1919 movement, a glorious struggle to protect China from bullying from abroad and misrule at home. Chinese history textbooks insist that the bold protests of the May Fourth Movement—events praised as often in China’s schoolrooms as the Boston Tea Party is in American ones—laid the groundwork for the founding of the CCP in 1921, which in turn led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. As with the Boston Tea Party, the tendency in contemporary politics is to argue not over whether the May Fourth Movement was a good thing, but rather over who has the best right to speak in its name and represent its ideals.
What kinds of grievances and goals were at play ninety-five years ago today? The students who gathered in front of Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace—on ground that in the 1950s would be transformed into a massive plaza filled with revolutionary monuments—were angered by terms in the Treaty of Versailles that would transfer former German territories in China to Japan rather than returning them to Chinese control. The protesting youths, who were strongly influenced by international currents and ideologies but also intensely concerned with a sense that their nation was at a crisis point, gathered to show their patriotism and express their fury at autocratic domestic officials whom they insisted were more intent upon protecting their positions of power and lining their own pockets than doing what was best for the country.
You can read the rest of the article at [Dissent].