How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 particular, felt the blow like the loss of a limb. Born into the final act of imperial China, they grappled with the disparity between their lot and that of a more developed world and burned with a sense of what was at stake—an ordeal as grave as the survival of China itself. They were the inheritors of a fallen empire. Their country’s humiliation was their anguish.
Inside the Beijing classroom, passions ran high. Students from across the country had flooded Europe with telegrams, beseeching the Chinese delegation at Versailles to salvage the country’s pride and walk away. One young man, flashing a knife, cried out that the pain was too much to bear and that he would rather take his own life than tolerate China’s weakness. A protest had been previously planned for the following week, but such was the clamor in the room, the intensity of the students’ convictions, that they knew they could not wait. They would march the next day—May 4.
The march marked the birth of the storied May Fourth Movement, a national cultural and political awakening that, over the past century, has come to symbolize the birth of modern China. It was a time of profound reflection and remarkable plurality of thought, a period of radical openness and possibility christened by historians as “the Chinese Enlightenment.” In a land of symbols and ceremonies, its yearly anniversary continues to evoke a powerful cultural resonance. “The movement is not obsolete . . . not merely a historical event,” wrote the state-run newspaper China Daily in 2009, on the 90th anniversary of the protest. “The discussions and contentions over it have never ceased.” Indeed, claims to the May Fourth legacy were recorded even before the streets had been cleared. In a poem penned the very day of the protests, a student at Peking University wrote that he and his peers had marched “to purge clear the shame from Chinese hearts and minds.” He wrote, “We’d do anything to save China.”
For the fledgling nation’s educated and elite, saving China was foremost on everyone’s mind. Once conceived as the center of human civilization, the Chinese empire had entered the twentieth century limping, crippled by an unrelenting succession of crises. Barely a decade into the new century, the Qing dynasty collapsed, replaced by a flawed republic that quickly succumbed to corrupt warlords and foreign aggressors.
The Chinese Communist Party has rooted its origin story in the romance and defiance of May 4.
Out of these conditions, however, rose a generation of writers and scholars, trained in Japan and the West, who balked at the shackles of Chinese tradition and looked abroad for tools of progress. Beginning in the 1910s, hundreds of new journals and magazines printed their first issues, wrestling with the most pressing subjects of their time, their insatiable appetite for modernity reflected in titles such as New Youth, New Tide, New Life, New Epoch, New Society, New Literature and Art—new everything. The collective fervor came to be known as the New Culture Movement, a swirl of ideas and activity that spurned the past, contested the future, and elevated the individual to a prominence not seen before or since. Culture was politics, and politics was culture. The nation brimmed with new plans for structuring life and society, while systems that had dominated for millennia were left in the dust.
If the visionaries of New Culture readied the kindling, the students on May 4, 1919, lit the fire. The movement secured its place in Chinese history by consolidating diffuse ideals for the future under the unifying banner of nationalism: “How,” they asked, “might China rise again?” Some pressed for greater political freedoms. Others attacked the country’s Confucian heritage. Still others believed they were joining the fight against imperialism. For China’s vocal liberal wing, calls for “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” emerged as a rallying cry, becoming for many synonymous with the movement itself. At its heart, May Fourth succeeded because it stoked the same deep yearning in everyone—the wish to save China.
Out of the movement’s bonfire leapt one ember that would catch and ignite into its own great flame. Taking inspiration from the Russian Revolution, China’s early Marxists began as a fringe study group on the campus of Peking University, steadily disseminating the language of class struggle and revolution to a national audience. In July 1921, around a dozen Marxists gathered for a secret meeting in Shanghai. Buoyed by support from the Soviet Comintern, they formally established the Communist Party in China and presided over its first party congress. Among the delegates was a local cell leader named Mao Zedong. May Fourth had catalyzed a turn in Mao’s worldview: sensing the need for a more structured politics, he abandoned his previous anarchism and plunged into Marxist-Leninist theory. It was, he later reflected, “a critical period of my life.”
Ever since, the Chinese Communist Party has rooted its origin story in the romance and defiance of May 4. The party’s official history books trace a direct line from its founding back to the movement, which is credited with “wakening the Chinese national consciousness” and “preparing the fundamental conditions of the founding of the CCP.” Mao hailed the movement as the party’s “chief landmark,” which produced in China “a brand-new cultural force . . . that is, the communist culture and ideology guided by the Chinese Communists.” According to party lore, the spirit of May 4 was finally realized in 1949, when the communists declared victory in the nation’s civil war, announcing the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
The Communist Party’s appropriation of May Fourth would exert powerful effects on its rule. The movement’s intensity had made a profound impression on Mao, who spoke of it as a “cultural revolution” as early as 1940. The first decades of the People’s Republic saw a tremendous embrace of his vast nation-building project, but his plans began to unravel in the 1950s with the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward. As Mao’s failures mounted and his grip on power loosened, he retreated into the one program he knew best: revolution.
Cloaking himself in the rhetoric of May 4, Mao launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966. He called for the nation’s youth to “bombard the headquarters” of society and purge it of all “reactionary” elements, ranging from top party leaders to members of the students’ own families. He incited his “Red Guards,” impassioned young devotees throughout China’s cities, to “smash the four olds”: old thinking, old customs, old habits, and old culture. Chinese youth had formed the backbone of the May Fourth Movement, but their cause, Mao believed, had since been betrayed, and it would fall upon the shoulders of a new generation to revive the revolution. As the historian Rana Mitter has noted, the Cultural Revolution displayed many of the key features of the May Fourth Movement—“obsession with youth, destruction of the past, arrogance about the superiority of one’s own chosen system of thought”—albeit refracted through the lens of Mao’s perverse ideology.
Mao’s cult of personality was itself a product of May Fourth. Some of the movement’s most prominent writers, such as Ding Ling and Guo Moruo, were ardent admirers of European romanticism, popularizing the idea of the transcendent hero and of a society’s capacity to transform itself through pure faith and will. Mao embraced these inclinations and pushed them to their extreme, encouraging absurd displays of exaltation from his subjects. One young educator, after catching a glimpse of the revered leader in 1966, wrote to his colleagues: “Today I am so happy my heart is about to burst.” So monumental was the encounter that he resolved to mark the day his new birthday.
Mao’s final revolution ended with his death in 1976, and under new leadership, the Chinese Communist Party swiftly moved to distance itself from the terrors of his reign. The May Fourth Movement, however, retained its potency as a legitimizing historical symbol, soon recast to serve a new narrative. Addressing the country in 1978, China’s new paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, promoted an ambitious reform agenda and called for widespread “thought liberation” to unchain the public from Mao’s lingering dogma. At a symposium a few months later, May Fourth was honored as China’s first “thought-emancipation movement” in the modern era.
Chinese liberals, held down for decades, sensed the changing winds. “The May Fourth spirit is democracy and science,” declared the historian Ding Shouhe, both of which “are still urgently needed for China’s modernization today.” In 1978 and 1979, activists took to meeting in front of a popular brick foundation in central Beijing, dressing it with big-character posters to articulate their bottled desires. Anointed the “Democracy Wall,” the site quickly attracted thousands of men and women who gathered on afternoons and weekends to rebuke Mao’s rule, condemn the party’s authoritarianism, and urge on further reforms. It proved to be too much, too fast. At the end of 1979, the party stepped in, erasing the wall and arresting the movement’s leaders. But the public’s energy could not be contained. Since openly attacking the party was no longer permitted, the movement diverted its efforts into another channel—criticizing Chinese tradition as the source of the nation’s ills.
During the 1980s, Chinese writers and intellectuals again became obsessed with the old question “How can we make China modern? How can we make it strong?” One 1988 analysis by Wen Yuankai and Ni Duan described the Chinese character as saddled by “conservative consciousness, obedience, suppressed individuality, insulation, and lack of innovative spirit.” Others heaped blame on China’s “authoritarian culture,” a carefully disguised proxy for the party’s ideology. This “cultural fever” built throughout the decade, producing hundreds of books and articles probing the sources of China’s national weakness. One scholar, Li Guizhong, called it “the second major cultural debate in modern Chinese history, the first being during the May Fourth period.”
A new fever for Western ideas added fuel to this debate. Student-organized reading groups took root at Peking University, known as “Beida” for short, and at other schools across the country. Young Chinese pored over the greatest Western minds—Hayek and Heidegger, Nietzsche and Weber. By the spring of 1989, as the 70th anniversary of May Fourth approached, the new generation had engineered a groundswell for change. Student activists in Beijing hosted “democracy salons,” while Wang Dan, a student at Beida, published a journal titled New May Fourth. In April, he distributed an open letter arguing that just as Deng had established “special zones” for opening up the economy, the university “should serve as a special zone for promoting the democratization of politics.”
Claiming the mantle of their May Fourth forebears, a new cohort of Chinese youth, born during the Cultural Revolution but shaped in the post-Mao era, emerged as the galvanizing force of a national political movement. On May 4, 1989, student leaders gathered in Tiananmen Square and issued the “New May Fourth Manifesto,” urging all demonstrators to “carry forward the May Fourth spirit of science and democracy.” Hundreds of thousands camped in the square at night; themes of rebirth and renewal once more ruled the day. The iconic Chinese television program River Elegy, first broadcast the previous summer, articulated the movement’s reawakened spirit: “It is as if many things in China ought to start afresh from May Fourth.”
Not for the Communist Party. On June 4, it deployed troops and tanks to crush the public demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, then quickly moved to impose its own narrative of events. Although the student movements from May Fourth and 1989 had been inextricably entwined, the party labored to disjoin them. Speaking on May 3, 1990, Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin dismissed the protesters as “allies of foreign aggressors.” He said, “Some of our younger intellectuals fell prey to the influence of a Western bourgeois worldview and values.” He said, “We are confident that our younger comrades will be able to solve these problems through study and social practice.”
Subsequent commemorations have fixed the specter of the violent suppression into a cautionary tale. Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, used the 80th anniversary of May 4, in 1999, to warn against encroaching foreign influence. He said, “The Western powers still . . . promote divisions among socialist countries and developing nations.” He said, “The broad masses of Chinese young people must acquire an all-round perspective, a dialectical understanding and evolving appreciation of the ever-changing situation.” In 2014, President Xi Jinping made an official visit to Peking University during the movement’s 95th anniversary. In his remarks on May 4, he said, “Youth is a time when your values are undergoing change and maturation.” He said, “It is crucial to control this phase in a person’s development.”
Anniversaries in China are more than remembrances; they are access points to former passions and repressed grievances, feared by the party for their potential to combust. The year 2019 brings a catalog of politically charged anniversaries: ten years since the Uighur riots in Urumqi, 20 years since the state’s crackdown on the Falun Gong, 60 years since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet. At the top of the bill is the 30th anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy protests and, perhaps most salient, the centennial of the May Fourth Movement.
Under Xi, the Communist Party has systematically strengthened its control over all aspects of Chinese civic life. At Peking University, the historic center of both the 1919 and 1989 movements, the state has fastened cameras to lampposts, built informant networks, and appointed, last fall, a new university president with sterling party credentials. May Fourth—modern China’s most potent symbol of national expression—has been stripped of its aspirations and sanitized into a reliable party talking point. On campus, a recent survey administered to select Beida graduate students tested their affinity to statements such as “[Xi is] a leader whose heart was forged by the noble struggle” and “Multiparty Western democracy is not suited to China.” One line of questioning appeared designed to root out subversives, gauging what respondents thought was embodied by “the May 4th Spirit” and whether “the youth should release its passion . . . and chase youthful ideals.”
The passions of Chinese youth have always straddled a fine and fluid line. At times they have been a force to be weaponized; since 1989, an impulse to be suppressed. The party has not been shy in showcasing the fates of those it deems to have gone too far. Last summer, security forces stormed an apartment of students and young labor activists in Huizhou, assembled to help factory workers organize for greater rights. Fifty members of the group were detained; several remained in custody into the new year—among them, two recent Beida graduates. Last November, the detainees’ classmates distributed flyers in university canteens but were met with general apathy, before police officers moved in to silence them. Since then, a half dozen more Beida students and alumni, along with many of their peers around the country, have quietly disappeared.
One hundred years ago, idealistic young Chinese banded together to jolt the nation’s conscience. Today, their heirs face erasure.