The May Fourth Movement – named for the protests of May 4, 1919, although the movement itself spanned a longer time frame – was one of the most monumental intellectual revolutions and socio-political reform movements in China’s history. Chinese students and intellectuals rallied to protest against the country’s continued international subjugation – part of the Century of Humiliation – by the Western powers and, more specifically, Japan. It has been a public holiday since 1949 and remains an important symbol of nationalistic patriotism in the People’s Republic of China, celebrated across China as Youth Day.
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has given special focus to the relevance of the May Fourth Movement, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has regularly invoked its sentiments when addressing his hopes for China’s future – and more specifically, that of its youth – in the world. Through official documents and statements, the CCP has further sought to demonstrate how the May Fourth Movement of 1919 continues to be relevant in today’s China. Why does the May Fourth Movement, which arguably started the modern Chinese tradition of student protests, hold such relevance today, especially when the party is notorious in its contempt for most examples of student activism?
A Legacy Well Beyond Its Centennial
Many present day Chinese political diktats and goals continue to borrow from the May Fourth Movement. The movement and the intertwined New Culture Movement articulated contempt for traditional Chinese culture by the country’s intellectuals, and its leaders, Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi, played key roles in shaping China as we know today. The former went on to become a founder of the CCP itself in 1921 while the latter initiated the baihua vernacular writing style that replaced the 2,000 year old traditional Chinese language used in writing.
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The legacy of the movement in its immediate aftermath was carried forward by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong as well; they both were participants in May Fourth. Later on, the bifurcation in how each drew from the movement highlights how the central goal of May Fourth was, and continues to be, retained even as its implementation is altered by Chinese leaders to support their own purposes. For instance, while Chiang did not turn away from Confucian values as a whole, he used self-correction as a means to herald the New Life Movement that ultimately sought to rebuild the “essence” of what being Chinese meant. Mao’s writing in the 1930s highlighted “borrowing but preserving”; as a strong critic of traditional Chinese culture, he cautioned against forgetting one’s history while advocating for change. Hence, Mao stated that China’s Communist ideology must have Chinese characteristics.
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Essentially, the May Fourth Movement is seen as a key moment in China’s modern history, marking a turning point in the country’s cultural, political, and intellectual development. First, the movement emphasized the need for China to modernize and catch up with the West, and its legacy can be seen in the CCP’s emphasis on economic development, scientific innovation, and technological advancement. Additionally, the movement’s emphasis on nationalism and social responsibility can be seen in the CCP’s promotion of Chinese culture and its focus on poverty alleviation and social welfare.
Second, the May Fourth Movement is closely tied to the development of the CCP. Many of the prominent leaders of the CCP, including Mao and Zhou Enlai, were also involved in the movement. The movement’s emphasis on democracy, nationalism, and social reform can be seen in the CCP’s early policies and ideology, including its promotion of agrarian reform, women’s rights, and proletarian revolution.
Third, the May Fourth Movement continues to be an important source of cultural and intellectual inspiration in contemporary China. The movement’s emphasis on individualism, free thought, and cultural creativity has been influential in the development of China’s art, literature, and cultural industries. The movement’s legacy can also be seen in China’s contemporary social and political debates, including discussions of democracy, human rights, and political reform.
However, it should be noted that the CCP’s interpretation of the May Fourth Movement has been highly selective and sanitized. While the party has promoted certain aspects of the movement’s legacy, such as its emphasis on national unity and social progress, it has largely ignored or suppressed the movement’s more radical and democratic elements. Over the past decade, the government has also further tightened control over civil society and the media, limiting opportunities for open discussion and debate about the movement’s legacy and its relevance to contemporary China.
May Fourth in Xi’s Leadership
Xi Jinping has made several references to the movement in his speeches and writings, and it is clear that he sees it as a source of inspiration for his vision of China’s future. One of the key themes of the May Fourth Movement was the need for China to become strong and modern in order to resist foreign domination. This idea resonates strongly with Xi’s emphasis on China’s rejuvenation and the “Chinese Dream,” which he has defined as the goal of making China a strong, prosperous, and modern country by the middle of the 21st century.
Hence, Xi’s inculcation of May Fourth is similar to Chiang and Mao’s interpretation of the movement, wherein while continuing the move toward modernization of thought, the leaders ultimately laid main emphasis on the proud identity creation of the Chinese people. This was the driving force behind the May Fourth Movement’s fight against imperialism. It is this focus that we see under Xi’s leadership as well via “socialism with Chinese characteristics”; modernization drives for the country and the military; and the “Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” via which he urges the youth to “dare to dream.”
Xi has incorporated the May Fourth Movement into his domestic governance in several ways, of which education is an important example. In a bid to ensure deeper study of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement – and thereby inculcate the same in the youth of contemporary China so as to achieve the Chinese Dream – in 2015 the topic was incorporated into the national education system. This has led to a renewed emphasis on teaching the history and values of the May Fourth Movement in Chinese schools, as well as the promotion of extracurricular activities that promote the movement’s ideals.
Xi has also emphasized the importance of Chinese culture and identity, which is another key aspect of the May Fourth Movement. The movement was characterized by a rejection of traditional Chinese culture (especially Confucianism) and a call for the adoption of Western ideas, but it also emphasized the need to preserve and promote Chinese culture – albeit a “new culture” – in the face of foreign influence. Xi has similarly called for a revitalization of traditional Chinese culture. On October 16, 2022, he promoted the idea of “cultural confidence” as a way of strengthening China’s soft power.
Herein, cultural policy has emerged as a key area of May Fourth appropriation. This has included the development of museums, cultural centers, cultural films, and literary anecdotes as well as other institutions dedicated to preserving and promoting China’s cultural heritage drawing from the values of the May Fourth Movement. A prominent example here is that of the continued celebration of the works of Lu Xun, recognized as “the greatest figure in 20th-century Chinese literature.”
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Another important aspect of the May Fourth Movement was its emphasis on democracy and political reform. Although the movement did not ultimately succeed in bringing about major political change in China, it helped to lay the groundwork for the CCP’s rise to power. Xi has also stressed the need for political reform, but he has done so in a way that emphasizes the importance of maintaining stability and the leadership of the Communist Party. Democratic Centralism, in principle, has been the accepted “fundamental organizational principle” of the party; it has drawn greatly from the May Fourth Movement’s doctrines. Hence, political discourse and reform continues to emphasize the importance of stability and the leadership of the Communist Party, even as it dovetails into May Fourth ideals.
May Fourth: Why No Threat Perception?
The CCP has maintained its control over Chinese historical legacies. For instance, while the study of May Fourth is encouraged – as its interpretation has been successfully sanitized – another student protest movement, June Fourth (referring to the protests in 1989, particularly in Tiananmen Square) remains categorized as “anti-party, anti-socialism activities.” Amid China’s taut history with student revolutions and protests, the CCP extols the ones where it was part of the revolutionary side (like the May Fourth Movement) and condemns the ones that have taken place since it became the ruling power.
It is unlikely that the May Fourth Movement would emerge as a direct threat to Xi and his regime by promoting the idea of a student revolution. Its ideals and values have been incorporated well into the official discourse and the education system in China. While some elements of the movement’s legacy, such as its emphasis on democracy and political reform, could be seen as potentially challenging to the current government, it is unlikely that mention of the movement would result in a widespread student revolution.
The government maintains a powerful propaganda machine that promotes its own vision of Chinese history and culture, which includes a sanitized version of the May Fourth Movement that emphasizes patriotism and social responsibility, but downplays its more radical and democratic elements. Furthermore, the Chinese government has shown a willingness to use force to suppress dissent and protests as was demonstrated in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests. Since then, the government has taken steps to prevent the emergence of similar movements and has invested heavily in its security apparatus to ensure that dissent is kept under control.
In summary, while the May Fourth Movement’s ideals and values may hold some potential for challenging the current government’s policies and actions, it is unlikely that the movement itself would emerge as a direct threat to Xi Jinping and his regime with regards to a student revolution. The government’s strict control over civil society and political dissent, along with its willingness to use force to suppress protests, would likely prevent a resurrection of the movement from gaining widespread traction or resulting in significant political change.
Overall, the May Fourth Movement holds significant symbolic and ideological importance for Xi Jinping’s vision of China’s future. It represents a call for modernization, national strength, cultural confidence, and political reform, all of which are key components of Xi’s broader agenda for China’s development. Xi has incorporated the May Fourth Movement into his domestic governance in a way that emphasizes the importance of patriotism, innovation, social responsibility, and cultural confidence. By promoting these values, Xi hopes to strengthen China’s national identity and promote its development as a modern, prosperous, and influential country, signaling that the continued legacy of May Fourth will thrive.
This piece was previously published by the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA) and is reprinted with permission.