May 4, while ironically celebrated as “Star Wars” Day in the West, carries a different connotation in China. 96 years ago today, Chinese university students from across Beijing met and united to launch a movement that changed the cultural and political trajectory of contemporary China.
In what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, Chinese student leaders demonstrated against the Chinese government’s perceived capitulation to the whims of Western powers at the Treaty of Versailles. More specifically, China had joined the First World War on the side of the allies with the expectation that German holdings on its territory—most significantly the Shandong peninsula—would be returned to China in a post-war settlement.
Now, the Treaty of Versailles is regarded as a phenomenally poor treaty, encapsulating the arrogance of the allied powers in their time of victory. Normally, this is discussed in the context of the treaty’s effect on Germany’s disaffection and eventually rearmament in the 1930s, following the collapse of the feeble Weimar Republic.
For China, the Treaty of Versailles was a similar debacle. None of China’s demands were taken seriously by representatives of the allied powers, including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the great idealist, who arrived in Paris with his Fourteen Points in tow. China demanded an end to extraterritoriality for foreign powers on its soil, a cancellation of Japan’s exploitative ‘Twenty-One Demands,’ and the return of Shandong from the Germans. (At the end of the war, Shandong fell under Japan’s administration after it defeated the Germans at Shandong.)
Part of the problem for China was that pursuant to the ‘Twenty-One Demands’ China had conceded to Japan former control of Germany’s holdings. In the allies’ view, this made the Chinese asks at the Paris Peace Conference a non-starter—especially when diplomatic energies could be directed toward the more pressing issue of dealing with Germany. In the end, China walked away from the Paris Peace Conference with nothing in hand. Worse yet, Shandong had fallen into the hands of Japan—a country that had defeated China in the late-1890s and became a symbol for China’s growing nationalist anger at the time.
In acute terms, these events kicked off the May Fourth Movement. 3,000 students marched in the streets and gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the poor outcome of the Versailles Treaty. They called for an end to Japan’s ‘Twenty-One Demands,’ the return of Shandong, and a boycott of Japanese goods. Eventually, the protests spread beyond students to the working-class and merchants. China’s economic heartbeat in Shanghai stood still due to widespread striking. The government reacted with little guile, simply arresting the student protesters and hoping the event would pass with little significance.
In the end, the May Fourth Movement forced the government to acknowledge the widespread grievances and respond. Though it was too late to have Chinese interests represented in the post-war settlement, the Republic of China’s Beiyang government condemned the Treaty of Versailles, satisfying a core symbolic issue for the protesters. The government also fired Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang, and Lu Zongyu, China’s representatives at the Paris Peace Conference. Finally, the government agreed to release all students arrested during the protests.
The long-term significance of the May Fourth Movement is debated, but most historians of modern China note its significance as a turning point in China’s post-imperial transformation. It represented a significant flare-up of Chinese nationalism, and was a clear populist manifestation of China’s “century of humiliation.”
In broader terms, it led to the birth of a new intellectual class and opening up. In the wake of the May Fourth Movement, prominent intellectuals and scholars helped crystallize standard vernacular Chinese as the primary form of the language within the country, supplanting Jianghuai and Northern Mandarian—the less popular Qing dynasty-era dialect.
Two years after the May Fourth Movement, the Communist Party of China was founded. Mao Zedong would later cite the May Fourth Movement as a “new stage in China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism.”
The dynamics that sparked the May Fourth Movement bear relevance today in contemporary China. While we may perceive Xi Jinping as the most iron-fisted ruler China has had since Deng Xiaoping (the man of who clamped down on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989—another infamous date), popular nationalism constrains China’s foreign policies in important ways.
For example, when deciding how it should act with regard to its disputes in the East and South China Seas, Beijing remains wary of taking any action that could provoke a nationalist backlash or cause national embarrassment. While China has certainly grown assertive in recent years, its leaders face the nightmare prospect of “losing” a war should matters escalate in Asia. This, in turn, could spark a populist backlash that could prove too much for the Party to handle, costing it greatly in terms of its legitimacy.
What should be emphasized about the May Fourth Movement is that though it was a popular uprising, it shouldn’t be misunderstood as an effusion of democracy—certainly not Western-style democracy. What it represented was a deeply nationalist and widespread anger with what the West had taken away from China. This is why, when the post-May Fourth intellectual opening came in China, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, the intellectual fathers and co-founders of the Communist Party of China, didn’t turn to the writings of enlightenment-era democrats or reflect on the Federalist Papers. Instead, like their slightly more experienced intellectual contemporaries in Russia, they turned to Marx for a new way.