contributor perspectives

May 10, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

11 mins read

What a Year of Notable Anniversaries Says About China's Future

Board of Contributors
Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
Guests leave a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of China's May Fourth Movement against Western imperialism on April 30, 2019, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
(GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • The centennial of the student-led May Fourth Movement is one of the most important of several major anniversaries in China this year; its complicated legacy is open to different interpretations.
  • The Communist Party's interpretation is a celebratory narrative: China has accomplished much of what the May Fourth protesters demanded — thanks in no small part to the 1949 communist takeover of China, another event with a notable anniversary this year.
  • The leaders of the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 also claimed the mantle of the May Fourth Movement. Which interpretation will win out by the time the 200th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement rolls around is an open question.

This is a big year for anniversaries in China. Thirty years have passed since the Tiananmen Square uprising, 70 since the founding of the people's republic, a full 100 since the Treaty of Versailles sparked the May Fourth protest movement and 125 since the outbreak of a disastrous war with Japan.

China will officially mark or minimize each of these anniversaries in a different way, but this week's centenary of the May Fourth protests — rebranded as Youth Day by the Communist Party in 1949 — is certainly getting the full celebratory treatment. On April 30, 3,000 party officials gathered in the Great Hall of the People, just a matter of yards from where the protests began a century ago in Tiananmen Square. They listened to President Xi Jinping speak at length about the movement's significance. The platform in the Auditorium of Ten Thousand People was festooned with banners carrying the not-so-catchy slogan "Closely unite around the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core." But that, according to Xi, was in fact the real message of what happened in 1919. "In today's China," he explained, "the essence of patriotism is to maintain a high degree of unity in loving the country, the party and socialism."

Xi's speech has been widely derided as hijacking history, twisting the original liberal, nationalist intentions of the student protesters of 1919 into crude propaganda for authoritarianism. We should probably expect such criticism to intensify as we get closer to June 4, the anniversary of the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. However, when we look more closely at what the leaders of the May Fourth Movement actually said and did, things get more complicated. China's 20th-century story does not fit neatly into Xi's celebratory narrative, but neither is it entirely consistent with the anti-communist alternatives on offer. In some ways, Xi is quite right that his current one-party regime is building on the heritage of the May Fourthers; in another, he is blatantly distorting their ideals. This year of anniversaries seems like a good time to step back and ask how events between 1894 and 2019 fit together, and what they might tell us about where China is heading.

A Decision That Added Insult to Injury

The immediate cause of the protests on May 4, 1919, was a diplomatic decision taken half a world away in Versailles, France. When World War I broke out, Japan joined the Allies and seized Germany's colonies in China's Shandong Peninsula, assuming that it would keep them when the war ended. But when China also joined the Allies in 1917, it did so partly on the assumption that these colonies would be returned to Beijing's control once Germany was defeated. Someone was bound to be disappointed, and in the haggling at the Versailles peace conference, the Allies decided that China would be the one to lose out.

What made this decision so intolerable in China was another of the events with an anniversary in 2019 — the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. But the significance of that war can only be understood in terms of events another half-century earlier, when Western warships bullied both China and Japan into opening their markets to foreigners. The two countries subsequently reacted in different ways. In 1860s China, advocates of a "self-strengthening" policy convinced their rulers that Chinese institutions and traditions were fundamentally sound, and that if the emperor just bought a few Western guns, ships and steam engines, all would be well and politics could carry on as usual. In Japan, by contrast, a "civilization and enlightenment" movement won out. Intellectuals such as Fukuzawa Yukichi argued that the problem was deep-seated: Much of Japan's culture had come from China, but China itself had only ever been half-civilized. To become fully civilized and to survive in the modern world, Fukuzawa thought, Japan had to reject its Chinese past and embrace root-and-branch reform. Over the next 50 years, Japan moved (to differing degrees) toward democracy, mass education and the emancipation of women. The government even considered adopting English as the national language.

China and Japan both built their first railroads in 1876, but Shanghai's governor tore up China's tracks the next year, fearing that his rivals might use them. By 1896, China had only 592 kilometers (370 miles) of railroads, while the much smaller Japan had 3,680 kilometers (2,300 miles). Japan modernized its armed forces and partly industrialized its economy in the 1880s-90s; China did not. Consequently, when the two countries fell out in 1894 over who should control Korea, China suffered a humiliating defeat.

Many (perhaps most) Chinese continue to fume over what they perceive as Western condescension and efforts to contain their country through military and economic pressure.

In handing Shandong to Japan in 1919, the Western Allies added insult to injury, and the nationalist outrage they provoked should hardly have surprised them. Nor, for that matter, should anyone be surprised that in 2019, Xi is able to connect so easily to this aspect of the May Fourth Movement. Many (perhaps most) Chinese continue to see Japan as an existential threat, and the ongoing disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands continue to provide regular flashpoints. Similarly, many (perhaps most) Chinese continue to fume over what they perceive as Western condescension and efforts to contain their country through military and economic pressure.

Protests against the Shandong ruling and the Treaty of Versailles in general were only two of the five resolutions passed by the student committee on the morning of May 4, 1919. However, the other three resolutions — to awaken the masses politically all across China, to launch mass protests in Beijing and to organize Beijing's students into a union — also seem perfectly consistent with Xi's interpretation of the anniversary. Many of the cultural reforms championed by the Communist Party, such as educating women and using a simplified version of the classical Chinese script, were pioneered by the 1919 protesters. In fact, we might easily see in the 1919 resolutions blueprints for much of what Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolutionaries tried to do 50 years later.

The reason critics challenge Xi's interpretation, though, and why the Communist Party itself remains rather wary about the May Fourth Movement, is that the events of 1919 were also part of a larger "New Cultural Movement" in the 1910s-20s. This was a reaction not to the specifics of Versailles but to a wider feeling that the Chinese Republic, inaugurated in 1912 after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, was failing to make China a respected part of the modern world. The New Cultural Movement embraced a huge variety of thinking, from learned disquisitions on tax codes and parliamentary government to impassioned defenses of free love. Its magazines, with titles such as The Dawn, New Woman and Plain People, bubbled over with ideas and arresting images, and they took the movement's intellectual ferment to enormous numbers of readers.

Breaking With Confucianism

In another parallel with contemporary communism, May Fourthers generally agreed that while the masses should be mobilized, they should be led by a revolutionary vanguard drawn from the educated elite. In 1919, a handful of academics from Peking University — Cai Yuanpei, its president; Chen Duxiu, its dean; and Hu Shi, a professor of philosophy — labored mightily to steer the movement's energy into what they saw as the right direction, while simultaneously feuding among themselves over what that direction should be. The parts each played — Cai the administrator; Chen the theorist; and Hu the pragmatist, attacking Chen and other radicals for obsessing about "isms" rather than solving problems — were eerily reminiscent of the conflicts within the Communist Party leadership later in the 20th century. That is probably no coincidence, since the Communist leadership owed so much to the May Fourth Movement. Mao always said the movement had been crucial in the formation of the Communist Party in 1921, and some of the movement's leaders (particularly Chen) were among the first intellectuals to study Karl Marx seriously in China. Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping all took part in programs growing out of the 1919 protests.

Of all the May Fourthers' ideas, though, the most influential was probably the demand that China cast off the dead hand of Confucianism. Chinese radicals in the 1910s-20s overwhelmingly felt that Japan's civilization and enlightenment policy had won its 19th-century debate with China's self-strengthening model, proving that Confucianism had made China backward over the previous few hundred years. May Fourthers aggressively criticized Confucianism's role in Chinese education, demanding that it be replaced with a superior system of thought. Because Communists, unsurprisingly, thought that Marxism provided just such a superior system, they set about substituting it for Confucianism.

Like so much else in May Fourth thought, anti-Confucianism was taken to a violent extreme in the 1960s, when Cultural Revolutionaries went to war with the "Four Olds" (old customs, old habits, old culture, old thinking), vandalizing Confucian temples, burning libraries and humiliating and assaulting classical scholars. Since then, however, the Communist Party has moved beyond the May Fourthers' positions. Returning to something more like the 1860s self-strengthening policy, it now emphasizes the enduring value of an unbroken, 3,000-year tradition of Chinese civilization. It is nowadays a commonplace idea that while Western technologies can help in China's "peaceful rise," there is no need to import Western values and lifestyles along with them.

The May Fourth Movement demanded that Confucianism be replaced with a superior system of thought. Because Communists thought that Marxism provided just such a superior system, they set about substituting it for Confucianism.

This is where the China of 2019 diverges most dramatically from that of 1919. In widely read essays published from 1915 onward in the magazine New Youth, Chen Duxiu dramatized the arguments over the value of classical Chinese culture as a debate. On one side were two modern characters, Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy; on the other, an ancient opponent, Mr. Confucius.

Few, if any, of Mr. Science's talking points would raise eyebrows in the Communist Party today. To be great, Chen argued, China must master the natural environment and compete with what was going on in Western laboratories. Lunar exploration, genetic engineering, high-speed trains, huge numbers of patents and all the other achievements of 21st-century China's scientists and engineers were surely exactly the kinds of things Chen was thinking of.

But Mr. Democracy's arguments are less welcome today. "The basic task," Chen wrote in 1916, "is to import the foundation of Western society, that is, the new belief in equality and human rights." Although Chen became one of the founding members of the Communist Party, he never gave up his refrain that China could only catch up with Japan, let alone the West, if it embraced political democracy. As late as 1945, in fact, Mao was still talking about the importance of democracy in any future Chinese state, and actually signed a joint declaration with Chiang Kai-shek committing to this. Yet despite the length of Xi's speech in the Great Hall of the People on April 30, democracy was not an aspect of the May Fourth Movement that he celebrated.

Same Story, Different Interpretations

It is remarkable how much of what the May Fourth Movement demanded in 1919 has been accomplished by 2019. The verdict of the 1894 war has been reversed, and China has been made great again. No one can doubt that the 1949 communist takeover, another event with an anniversary this year, played a decisive role in this. Just as the May Fourthers had demanded, it united the masses behind an educated revolutionary vanguard, broke with the Confucian past, launched China toward a scientific future and put the country back in the first rank of world powers.

Nor can anyone doubt that the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, the fourth of this year's great anniversaries, offered a different interpretation of the legacy of 1919. The protesters in 1989 explicitly cast themselves as the heirs of the May Fourth Movement, not only occupying the same piece of real estate outside the Forbidden City but also drawing parallels between themselves and the heroes of 70 years earlier.

What Xi's speech and the criticisms of it show is that 1949 and 1989 each belong to a different way of interpreting the same story, running back through 1919 to China's humiliation by Japan in 1894 and even to that by Britain in the 1840s. At issue is whether Mr. Democracy is a necessary part of the story. Which interpretation will have won out by the time China celebrates the 200th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement remains an open question.

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

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