Chinese President Xi Jinping has marked the centenary of student protests in 1919 that defined the nation, delivering a speech that carefully urged China’s youth to embrace the spirit of the May 4 Movement while also “loving the motherland” and Communist Party.
- Today marks 100 years since Chinese students protested against Imperialism
- The protests also advocated for Western ideas of pluralism and democracy
- President Xi reinforced patriotism and personal modesty in a commemorative speech
As the President’s hour-long televised speech celebrated the protesters as patriotic heroes for standing up against foreign powers, the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — which was also sparked by students protests and was a nod to the 1919 uprisings — loomed large.
“Chinese youth in the new era shall love the great motherland,” Mr Xi said.
“It is a shame if a man does not love, or even betrays his or her motherland … there’s no room for such deeds.”
The May 4 Movement of 1919 saw anti-imperialist student protests against a decision at the Paris Peace Conference to hand former German colonial territories to Japan after World War I.
Several leaders of the movement — which promoted the widespread dissemination of Marxism — would go on to play a part in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But the 1919 anniversary however also highlights ongoing contradictions within the CCP’s leadership, because the movement advocated for Western ideas of pluralism and democracy as the antidote to China’s ossified imperial form of government.
“It’s extremely difficult to reconstruct the many paradoxes of an event like this,” said Tom Sears, a researcher in digital commemoration and information warfare at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
“May 4 was about introducing ideas from the West: liberalism, individualism, intellectualism, [and] feminism.”
Despite the optimism the May 4 Movement brought at the time, the period following it was marked by turmoil and civil war in China, which eventually led to the overthrow of the republican government which fled to Taiwan after the communist revolution in 1949.
The issue of student protests is especially sensitive in China this year, which marks three decades since the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests — in which protesters partly saw themselves as embodying the spirit of the May 4 Movement — at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4.
Speaking to officials and youth delegates at the Great Hall of the People, on the western side of Tiananmen Square, Mr Xi praised the students of the May 4 protests.
He said the movement’s strength “encouraged Chinese people and the Chinese nation to realise the national rejuvenation”.
“Xi Jinping is reconstructing this moment as a nationalist one, even though 1919 was essentially promoting ideas from the West,” Mr Sears said.
But Mr Xi issued a warning to today’s youth that they must remain loyal to the CCP and China, maintaining that while the protests were historic, the most important thing young people could do was love their country.
“In the new era, Chinese youth should establish their belief in Marxism, faith in socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the confidence of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the Chinese dream,” he said.
“Without the needs of the motherland and the interests of the people, any self admiration will fall into a narrow world.”
Youth should resist money worship and hedonism: Xi
“In the new era, Chinese youth should consciously establish and practice the core values of socialism, and be good at drawing morality from the traditional virtues of the Chinese people,” he said.
“Consciously resist mistaken thoughts such as the worship of money, hedonism, extreme individualism, and historical nihilism,” Mr Xi added, referring to attempts to re-evaluate core events and personalities of the party’s revolutionary past.
Mr Sears said the President’s idealist moral overtures were not necessarily going to be heeded by the average citizen.
“It’s hard to see how the [Chinese] youth of today could be that enraptured by that model,” he said.
“The classic netizen today is probably a 25-year-old woman from Shanghai, so it begs the question: would she be interested in the idealism of the May 4 Movement or Western goods?”
Mr Xi said China had to make achievements on the back of its own work, and not rely on anyone else.
“A bright China is not a gift that can be given by anybody,” he said.
The narrative around May 4 has shifted in recent decades to exclude its support for liberalism and Western ideas, as the CCP reiterates that young people today have no reason to protest.
“In the new era, Chinese youth should establish their belief in Marxism, faith in socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the confidence of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the Chinese dream,” Mr Xi said.
By Bang Xiao, Holly Robertson, Alan Weedon and wires