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The Chinese Enlightenment at 100

How the Communist Party Seized the Legacy of May Fourth

Soldiers in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, May 1998 Andrew Wong / Reuters

One hundred years ago, on the evening of May 3, 1919, a group of Chinese students met inside an empty lecture hall in Beijing. World War I had ended in an armistice the previous fall, and the victorious powers were gathered at Versailles to negotiate a peace treaty. China, which had contributed to the Allied war effort, believed that it had earned if not an equal seat at the table, then at least the right for its voice to be heard. But during their negotiations, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States secretly agreed to cede disputed Chinese territory to Japan, which had also supported the Allies. As the American diplomat Edward T. Williams wrote, “China was betrayed in the house of her friends.”

News of the decision reached China on the morning of May 2. From rickshaw men to state ministers, Chinese citizens lapsed into despair. The nation’s youth, in

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