One hundred years since the May 4 movement in China—Part One

By Peter Symonds
4 May 2019

This is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published on May 6.

One hundred years ago on May 4, 1919, thousands of students from 13 colleges and universities gathered in what is today Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to protest the outcome of the peace talks in Versailles following the end of World War I. They were outraged at the horse-trading between the major powers that handed Shandong Province to Japan and kept in place the unequal treaties forced on China. These had created British, French and International “concessions,” or enclaves, in cities like Shanghai.

The demonstration was the outcome of intense discussions and meetings throughout the previous day and night. These brought forward an already planned protest, following news about the complicity of the warlord government in Beijing in the outcome of the talks. Students handed out copies of a passionate “Manifesto of All Students of Peking” that called on the nation to rise up “to secure our sovereignty in foreign affairs and to get rid of the traitors at home:”

This is the last chance for China in her life and death struggle. Today we swear two solemn oaths with all our fellow countrymen: (1) China’s territory may be conquered but it cannot be given away; (2) the Chinese people may be massacred but they will not surrender. Our country is about to be annihilated. Up brethren! [1]

The students marched through the streets chanting anti-imperialist slogans such as “China has been sentenced to death [at the Paris Conference],” “Refuse to sign the Peace Treaty,” “Boycott Japanese goods” and “China belongs to the Chinese.” They denounced pro-Japanese “traitors” who were government ministers.

Beijing students protesting the Treaty of Versailles on May 4

One account described the public reaction:

The people of Beijing were deeply impressed by the demonstrators. Many spectators were so touched that they wept as they stood silently on the streets and listened carefully to the students shout their slogans. Many Western spectators greeted them with ovations and by taking off or waving their hats… Boy scouts and students from elementary schools joined in and distributed leaflets. [2]

Prevented by police from entering the Legation Quarter to appeal to foreign representatives for justice for China, the students proceeded to the residence of one of the three pro-Japanese “traitors.” Students broke into the house and beat up several occupants. Clashes broke out with police. A number of students were injured, one later dying in hospital, and 32 were arrested and imprisoned in police headquarters.

The protest triggered a broad anti-imperialist movement, initially of students, which also drew in the working class and layers of intellectuals, merchants and the urban poor, triggering strikes, protests and a boycott of Japanese goods. Police repression and arrests only provoked greater resistance.

In early June, the government launched a massive crackdown on groups of students campaigning in the streets, handing out leaflets and urging people to buy Chinese rather than Japanese goods. After the first arrests on June 2, thousands of students took to the streets on the following days, some with bedding strapped to their back in preparation for jail. By the end of June 4, over a thousand were being held in makeshift prisons in the buildings of Peking University, surrounded by troops.

Protesters on May 4

The mass arrests in early June provoked indignation throughout China. On June 5, a commercial strike paralysed China’s main industrial centre—Shanghai—in support of some 13,000 striking students. Strikes by workers spread throughout the city over the next days, with estimates of up to 90,000 workers involved. From Shanghai, the protests and strikes extended to other major cities.

Brought to its knees by the strike movement, the Beijing government first tried to conciliate with the students. The police and troops were withdrawn from the campuses, but the students refused to leave their campus prisons until their demands were met. The government and the police were compelled to apologise. Finally, students marched out of their prisons on June 8 “amid firecrackers and cheers to a fervent mass meeting and parade of welcome given by their fellow students and the citizenry.” [3]

On June 10, as the strikes and protests continued, the government announced the resignation of the three pro-Japanese ministers. However, the key demand—that China not sign the Versailles Treaty—remained unmet. On June 24, the government instructed the Chinese delegation, even if its protestations to the major powers failed, to sign the document regardless. Faced with an outpouring of angry protest, the president was compelled to reverse the decision the following day. On June 28, China’s representatives refused to join the major powers in signing the peace treaty with Germany.

May 4 demonstrators after their release from prison

The demonstrations and strikes were part of a broader intellectual and political ferment. The students who came onto the streets on May 4 had been influenced by the ideas of the New Culture movement, which asserted that ending China’s subjugation required the modernisation of all aspects of society on the basis of democratic ideals and the scientific advances in Europe and the United States.

What was involved was a revolt against traditional Chinese ethics, customs, literary forms, philosophy and social and political institutions. The chief target was ossified Confucianism, which had the status of a quasi-state religion. It provided the ideological underpinning for China’s elites by insisting on the unquestioning obedience of the ruled to the rulers, women to their husbands and sons to their fathers.

The New Culture movement had many diverse strands. However, in the wake of the May–June protest movement, a layer of intellectuals and youth turned decisively toward socialism, and, under the impact of the October Revolution in Russia, to Marxism and Bolshevism.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July 1921, little more than two years after the first Beijing protest. Many of the founding members were youth who had been radicalised by the May 4 movement. The CCP’s first chairman, Chen Duxiu, was a man in his early 40s who commanded respect inside and outside the party as a revolutionary and the chief intellectual leader of the New Culture movement.

One hundred years on, the CCP has long abandoned the socialist and internationalist principles on which it was founded and is resurrecting the stifling Chinese traditions against which the intellectuals and students had rebelled in the early 20th century. Today the CCP bureaucracy uses its police state apparatus to suppress any criticism or independent thought in schools and on university campuses, and is locking up students from Peking University and other campuses for the “crime” of supporting workers’ struggles.

Whatever ceremonies are organised by the CCP to mark May 4 will, above all, be designed to cover up and deny the crucial political lessons the anniversary holds for youth and workers today.

The roots of the May 4 movement

The roots of the May 4 movement lay in the failure of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, led by Sun Yat-sen. The movement overthrew the decrepit Manchu dynasty but could not implement its own aims—national unity and independence, a democratic republic and social welfare for the people, including land for the peasants.

Sun Yat-sen

The outcome demonstrated the organic inability of the class that Sun represented—the emerging Chinese bourgeoisie—to fulfil its historic tasks, tied as it was to the landlords in the countryside and subordinated to the imperialist powers on the world arena.

Chinese society had been wracked by crisis for well over a century, compounded by the corrosive influence of foreign invasions. Britain and France fought two Opium Wars, in 1842 and 1858, against the waning Manchu dynasty, which had attempted to block their huge sales of opium into China that were designed to ensure a permanent trade surplus in their favour. The European powers also established the treaty ports and the “concessions,” where extraterritoriality applied and foreigners were exempt from Chinese law and the payment of Chinese taxes.

The response of the Manchu court to these defeats and foreign exactions was to impose new burdens, chiefly on the peasantry that formed the vast bulk of the population and underpinned China’s economy. The ruination of the countryside was compounded by a flood of cheap foreign goods, which all but destroyed the local handicraft industries. Oppressive conditions sparked rural revolts, including the Taiping Rebellion, which grew out of an obscure neo-Christian cult in 1850 into a storm that swept the country and was only finally crushed in 1865 with the assistance of foreign troops.

The defeat of China at the hands of Japanese imperialism in 1895 came as a shock. It intensified the debate over how to resist the foreign carve-up and subjugation of the country. However, attempts to reform the decrepit Manchu dynasty and transform the archaic machinery of government came to nothing. The so-called “Hundred Days” of reform in 1898, under the young Emperor Guangxu, was abruptly ended by the Dowager Empress Cixi. She imprisoned her nephew and executed or jailed his reformist advisers.

Boxer rebels in 1900

The days of the Manchu dynasty were numbered. At the turn of the century, the dowager empress attempted to manipulate a new revolt by a Chinese secret organisation, known as the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, that erupted in northern China, and direct it against the foreign powers. The Boxer Rebellion was suppressed by foreign troops and new impositions were made on China by the victors.

Sun Yat-sen came to prominence in the wake of the failure of all attempts to reform the Manchu dynasty. While advocating revolution, however, he made no attempt to build a mass political movement, and engaged in conspiratorial activities involving small armed putsches or terrorist actions against individual Manchu officials.

In 1911, the Manchu dynasty virtually imploded. The imperial government was on the brink of bankruptcy after decades of plundering by the major powers. Politically, it was thoroughly discredited, as a result of the foreign annexation of Chinese territory in the form of colonies, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the extra-territorial “concessions.”

When the Manchu dynasty finally promised constitutional reform, it was too late. Significant sections of the Chinese bourgeoisie, bureaucracy and military had turned to Sun Yat-sen. On October 10, 1911, thousands of troops in Wuchang in Hubei province staged a rebellion and proclaimed a republic. The revolt rapidly spread across many Chinese provinces, but the lack of any genuine mass movement left vested interests untouched.

Sun was proclaimed the provisional president of a loosely federated “Republic of China” but, lacking any significant social base of his own, compromised with the old military-bureaucratic apparatus. Under pressure from the imperialist powers, he handed the presidency to the last prime minister of the Manchu dynasty, Yuan Shikai, who scrapped the constitution and dissolved the parliament.

The New Culture movement

In May 1915, Yuan provoked a wave of protests and opposition when his government accepted Japan’s humiliating 21 demands that gave it effective control of large swathes of China, including Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Public hostility only intensified when, in December 1915, he had himself “elected” as emperor of China by his puppet National People’s Assembly.

Most of China’s southern provinces under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen declared their independence from the Beijing government and, as his supporters deserted, Yuan expressed his intention of abandoning monarchism. He died in June 1916, leaving a fractured China ruled by rival warlords, each backed by competing foreign powers.

Chen Duxiu (left)

In 1915, amid the political turmoil, Chen Duxiu, who had been active in the 1911 revolution and in a revolt in 1913 against Yuan’s regime, returned to Shanghai from exile in Japan. He established the New Youth magazine, which proved to be a powerful magnet for the new generation of students. It was one of the pioneer publications in vernacular Chinese, rather than in the scholarly classical Chinese that was largely inaccessible to the population.

New Youth sounded a clarion call. Chen proclaimed that the task of the new generation was “to fight Confucianism, the old tradition of virtue and rituals, the old ethics and the old politics… the old learning and the old literature.” Mr Confucius, Chen declared, had to be replaced by Mr Democracy and Mr Science.

The extensive rural revolts in China—including the Taiping and Boxer rebellions—had been based largely on superstition, religious cults and secret societies. Sun Yat-sen espoused the ideals of a democratic republic, but exploited Han Chinese racialism against the Manchu, or Manchurian rulers.

However, Chen drew his intellectual inspiration from the European Enlightenment and the democratic traditions embodied in the 18th century revolutions in France and the United States. He wrote in New Youth in 1915:

We must break down the old prejudices, the old way of believing in things as they are, before we can begin to hope for social progress. We must discard our old ways. We must merge the ideas of the great thinkers of history, old and new, with our own experience, build up new ideas in politics, morality, and economic life. [4]

In his seminal work, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Harold Isaacs described Chen’s appeal to youth as “the opening manifesto of the era of the second Chinese revolution”—the political upheavals and ferment that began with the protest and strike movement of 1919 and led to the nation-wide revolutionary upsurge in 1925, only to be tragically betrayed in 1927. Isaacs explained the impact of New Youth:

Chen’s magazine was eagerly snatched up by students in every school and college in the country. When it was published, wrote one student, ‘it came to us like a clap of thunder which awakened us in the midst of a restless dream… I don’t know how many times this first issue was reprinted, but I am sure that more than 200,000 copies were sold.’ It nourished the impulsive iconoclasm of the young people. It gave direction to the mood of unease and unsettlement that pervaded all classes in the population. It was a call to action that awakened an immediate response. [5]

Li Dazhao

In late 1916, facing growing popular opposition, the government appointed the noted liberal educator, Cai Yuanpei, as chancellor of Peking University. Cai transformed the university from a bastion of conservative tradition into a hotbed of progressive intellectual thought and debate. Early the following year, he brought Chen to the university as dean of the School of Letters. Other intellectual leaders joined him, including Li Dazhao, who was appointed chief librarian in February 1918 and became a close collaborator of Chen. Mao Zedong, 25, was one of Li’s assistants.

Chen and Li helped to foster a group of students who produced their own monthly magazine, New Tide, which first appeared in January 1919. Many were to become prominent student leaders in the protests that erupted on May 4. New Tide groups were influenced by many intellectual currents, but the Russian Revolution was already making its presence felt. One contributor to the first issue, Lo Chia-lun, declared that the October 1917 Revolution was the new world tide of the 20th century.

To be continued

1. Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Stanford University Press, 1967, pp 106–7.

2. ibid, pp 109.

3. ibid, p 160.

4. Harold R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stanford University Press, second revised edition, 1961, p 53.

5. ibid, p 54.

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