May Fourth at Ninety-nine

Watching China Watching (XXII)


The Fourth of May marks China’s annual National Youth Day 五四青年節. It is ostensibly a time to celebrate the enthusiasm and independent spirit of youth. It commemorates the progressive, anti-imperialist student activists who, in 1919, led a national movement to protest against the unfair treatment of the Republic of China at the Versailles Peace Conference. Every year since the student-led protest movement of 1989, the weeks leading up to 4 May have been a time of heightened political anxiety.


Over the coming weeks, and in anticipation of the 2019 centenary of the May Fourth Movement, China Heritage will publish a series of articles about leading figures of the May Fourth era who rejected the Communist version of modern Chinese history. Today, on the day, we offer some reflections on the day.

This is the latest in the China Heritage series Watching China Watching.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 May 2018


The demonstration at Tiananmen, 4 May 1919

On 4 May 1919, more than three thousand students from thirteen universities in Peking gathered in the area in front of Tiananmen Gate (at the time there was no square as such) to protest imperialist aggression, in particular the Versailles Peace Conference which proposed allowing the Japanese Empire to occupy former German imperial concessions in China. Together with attempts to ‘modernise’ Chinese culture through language and educational reform that had developed since 1917, this became known variously as the New Culture Movement 新文化運動 or the May Fourth Movement 五四運動. Cultural anxiety, intellectual foment, economic stress, political fragmentation, continued imperial aggression combined with enthusiasm following the creation of the Soviet Union in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917, contributed to the founding and initial flourishing of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Today, May Fourth as commemorated in the People’s Republic of China is entwined with the distorting history of the Communist Party.

A High Price

Li Ao 李敖

Unfortunately, after the May Fourth Movement, as both the Nationalists and the Communists adopted Soviet-style organizational methods and party discipline under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, the goal of ‘healthy individualism’ was abandoned for that of collectivism. This foreign import brought disaster on China, for it stifled intellectual liberation. Hu Shi recalled:

The ironfisted discipline introduced from the Soviet Union was excessively intolerant; it outlawed heterodox opinion. It was diametrically opposed to the liberalism we had advocated from the inception of the May Fourth Movement.

And so it was that both the Bolsheviks and the fascists embarked on the path of collectivization, diverting China from the individual and intellectual liberation of the New Culture Movement.

The theme of the New Culture Movement was ‘enlightenment’, intellectual and cultural self-renewal, and self-transformation. The call of the May Fourth Movement was for ‘national salvation’, its thrust was primarily political, and it led people to join parties for self-benefit. Renewal and transformation became something to be imposed on others. The feeling that national collapse was imminent sent the whole country into a frenzy. … …

After thirty years of activism [from 1919 to 1949], we won back Taiwan and lost Outer Mongolia (a territory forty-four times larger than Taiwan). We invited the Soviet wolves right into our homes and repaid the cruelty of the Japanese with kindness. Then, with the nation covered in wounds [from the war], the right-wing fascists in the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and the left-wing Bolsheviks of the Communist Party took over the mainland.

The Chinese have paid dearly for those decades of ‘saving the nation’. China may finally have stood up, but the Chinese have fallen down.

— 李敖, 「再論五四」, 《解放月報》, 1989:4
trans. Geremie Barmé with Linda Jaivin
New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Voices of Conscience
New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.344-345



Other Dreams

On 4 May 2018, Peking University, a major focus of the student demonstrations of 1919, celebrates not only the events of 1919 but also the university’s 120th anniversary. For those interested in the fate of free thought, democracy and academic independence, however, a far more significant date is 16 October 1954.

In a letter circulated to the Communist Party Politburo on 16 October 1954, Mao Zedong offered a critique of interpretations of the Qing-dynasty novel The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢. Mao called for a discussion of academic approaches to classical literature in keeping with the Marxist-Leninist transformation of China, but his letter was a continuation of efforts to realign society ideologically. Preliminary efforts involving the critiques of various films had been frustrated by the cultural establishment. Now, Mao decided that universities were a crucial site of struggle and he launched a nationwide movement to purge educational institutions of pro-Western intellectual, social and political ideas. The denunciations focussed on the academic, politician and Dream expert, Hu Shi (胡適, 1891-1962), mentioned by Li Ao above.

Hu was a leading May Fourth intellectual and scholar who had also served as the president of Peking University from 1946 to 1948. During the civil war his ideas about democracy and liberalism informed supporters of a Third Road (also known as the Third Way 第三條路線 or the Middle Line 中間路線). A broad spectrum of social democrats and others advocated a political coalition under a Chinese republic that might forge a path between the extremes of the hard-line Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Stalinist socialism advocated by Mao’s communists (see Mao’s mocking references to this group in White Paper, Red Menace — Watching China Watching, VII, China Heritage, 17 January 2018).

In 1954, Hu, who had relocated to Taiwan, was attacked in absentia and his hapless acolytes, men and women who worked at tertiary institutions throughout the country, had to forswear their ‘bourgeois idealism’, that is the values of independent thought, academic inquiry, free speech and freedom of association, as well as the panoply of ideas promoted by the now-excoriated democratic West. The effects of this all-but-forgotten critique of The Dream of the Red Chamber and academic integrity have been profound.

The 1954 ideological campaign laid the basis for the Anti-Rightist purge of 1957, itself a prelude to the Cultural Revolution. Since 1979, the promotion of ‘spiritual civilisation’ and attacks on ‘spiritual pollution’, ‘bourgeois liberalism’ and ‘peaceful evolution’ have been the hallmark of numerous ideological campaigns. The derision and negation from 1954 onwards of ideas related to humanism, democracy and freedom as espoused by thinkers like Hu Shi underpin the authoritarian ‘Core Socialist Values’ 社會主義核心價值觀 articulated under the aegis of Party General Secretary Hu Jintao in 2006. These ‘socialist values’ (in short, an illiberal distortion of key Western concepts related to democracy that reinforces ideological compliance) are fundamental to the dogma of Xi Jinping and Wang Huning 王滬甯, and their Dream for China.


A President’s Last Words

Ding Shisun 丁石孫 was the president of Peking University from 1984 to 1989. He was removed from his post following the Fourth of June repression of student-led national protests calling for greater media and academic freedom, political liberalisation and transparency. He had encouraged university students to take part in the demonstrations.

Here at Peking University we have a very strong sense of our historical responsibility. The university is the product of the 1898 Reform Movement, and we have a tradition, especially after Mr Cai Yuanpei’s incumbency as president. That was a period of immense change in China. Our ninety-year history — ninety-one years this year — has been inextricably tied up with the modern history of China.

We say we breathe with the rhythm of history. So our teachers and students have always felt it imperative to make our contribution to the creation of a new and strong china and to push forward. This is an intangible thing, an ambience if you will … .

from We Are Writing History 他們正在寫歷史,
a film released in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1990.
trans. by Geremie Barmé with Linda Jaivin
New Ghosts, Old Dreams, p.343

May Fourth Demonstration, 4 May 1989. The banner reads: ‘It’s been seventy years!’ Photograph by Da Jun. Source: New Ghosts, Old Dreams

As noted in the above, and despite Ding Shisun’s best efforts, in reality since 1949, apart from a few important moments of glory during periods of relative ideological relaxation, the story of Peking University has been emblematic of the decades-long subjugation by the Communist Party of independent thought, academic freedom and student activism. Once at the vanguard of intellectual and cultural foment, today Peking University (PKU) is once more a laboratory for academic co-optation and self-debasement. Although both the university and its graduates trumpet the glories of PKU’s past, because of the fate of the liberal arts and humanities at this and China’s other tertiary educational institutions, they are principally heir to a legacy of shame.


May Fourth
Ninety-nine Years in the Making

1919: The May Fourth protesters call for national salvation, science and democracy. This outpouring of patriotism coalesced with the progressive hopes of the New Culture Movement that had wrought change to education, language and thinking since 1917

1929: Some New Culture / May Fourth firebrands hope to act as a ‘loyal opposition’ to the authoritarian Nationalist party-state that was gaining strength following the purge of Communists in 1927. For their part, left-leaning thinkers and activists, influenced both by local political developments and those in the Soviet Union,  began to mirror the dogmatism and opportunism of their enemies

1939: The Communists champion the idea of ‘superseding the May Fourth Movement’ so as to establish speedily a new national culture. Renaming the holiday to commemorate the May Fourth ‘National Youth Day’, they call on young people to join the war effort and untie with the workers and peasants ‘in the May Fourth spirit’

1949: Close to victory in their civil war with the Nationalists, the Communists confirm Mao Zedong Thought as the nation’s ideology. (They also declare that the participation of the intellectuals in the workers’ movement has been the greatest achievement of the May Fourth Movement)

1959: The May Fourth Movement is celebrated as part of the Great Leap Forward

1969: The May Fourth spirit is completely negated by the Cultural Revolution, although it is still celebrated in name

1979: On the sixtieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement China sets out from the same starting point as 1919, and the call for democracy and science goes out once more. There is also a renewed call for the ‘liberation of thought’, this time in opposition not to Confucianism but to the modern dogma of Maoism; it is aimed at validating the rule of Deng Xiaoping and his fellows

1989: The official government slogan announced to mark the seventieth anniversary of the movement is ‘Patriotism, Reform, Enterprise, Advancement’. There is no mention of democracy and science. Meanwhile, students and intellectuals demonstrated in Beijing and other cities for greater democracy, employing the original slogans of the May Fourth Movement. This was the last spontaneous mass student movement of this kind on the Mainland to date. The anti-foreign legacy of the May Fourth, however, would now find expression in semi-spontaneous outbursts targeting foreign governments, nationals and business interests

3 May 1990: Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin celebrates May Fourth in a speech:

Inimical forces both inside and outside China have been plotting to use the strategy of peaceful evolution to overthrow our socialist system and thereby deprive the Chinese people of their right to determine the fate of their nation. They want to turn China into a vassal of the West. … They small minority of people who stirred up, planned, and orchestrated the turmoil and counterrevolutionary riot of 1989, as well as those rioters and louts who betrayed China to flee overseas, are not only the enemies of socialism, but allies of foreign aggressors. Their activities have harmed the Motherland and the People, revealing an anti patriotic stance and spirit. They don’t care a whit for national respect or even self-respect. What right do they have to talk about patriotism, democracy and human rights! …

There was a time during which we were lax in ideological work and education in our fine Party traditions. As a result some of our younger intellectuals fell prey to the influence of a Western bourgeois worldview and values, as well as national nihilism. We are confident that our younger comrades will be able to solve these problems through study and social practice, and by drawing lessons from their experience. (from 江澤民, 愛國主義和我國知識分子的使命——在首都青年紀念五四報告會上的講話, 3 May 1990)

1999: Hu Jintao speaks on behalf of Jiang Zemin:

Cold War thinking continues to exist, All-Under-Heaven is not at peace as hegemonism and power politics continue to advance globally. The Western powers still purse a strategy of ‘westernization’ and promote divisions among socialist countries and developing nations. They will not give up. We are facing great opportunities and severe challenges. The creation of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is a new enterprise many aspects of which we are not yet familiar and which we don’t understand. We must inherit from the past while advancing. …. The broad masses of Chinese young people must acquire an all-round perspective, a dialectical understanding and evolving appreciation of the ever-changing situation. Merely to focus on the positive and to overlook difficulties or to ignore them and to indulge in baseless optimism is not only incorrect but harmful. To hesitate in the face of difficulties, to allow one’s confidence to be waver, to fail to act: all of these things are incorrect and harmful. (from 胡錦濤在五四運動八十週年紀念大會上的講話, 4 May 1999)

2009: the commemorative eulogy is presented by Li Changchun, Politburo member and Director of the Party’s Central Committee for the Building of Spiritual Civilisation 中央精神文明建设指导委员会主任:

From its inception the Party’s strategic thinking has been based on the belief that if we win over young people then we have won the future. To maintain a firm grasp over the youth movement of China, to guide young people to achieve healthy maturity, and thereby ensure that our Party will maintain its vitality and have worthy successors. Every stratum of the Party and the government must care passionately about the young, guide the young in a correct fashion, truly help the young and in particular help them resolve practical problems they encounter in their studies, their work, their finding employment and creative enterprises. They must think of every possible way to train the young to become talents, to work and to create, and to provide the conditions to make that possible. (from 李長春, 在紀念五四運動90週年大會上的講話, 4 May 2009)

2014, a buttoned-down celebration: On 4 May 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s part-state-army leader, pays an official visit to the campus of Peking University. It makrs the ninety-fifth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement and the latest stage in the reassertion of Communist domination over China’s intellectual life. His comments are reported in the following way:

The values of young people determine the values that underpin the future of society itself. Youth is a time when your values are undergoing change and maturation and so it is crucial to control this phase in a person’s development. It’s a process that is akin to buttoning up your clothes: if you get the first buttonhole wrong then all your buttons will be in the wrong order. Life, as in buttoning up your clothes, is all about orderly progression. (from 習近平北大行勉勵學生「人生就像扣扣子」引熱議, 5 May 2014)

In his remarks Xi also he affirmed that by 2018 Peking University would be an institution of international standing that was firmly grounded in China. The aim was not to create ‘the second Harvard or Cambridge’, but rather to make ‘Peking University the preeminent university’.

‘Two Series of Five Stops of Wearing Clothes’, by Geng Jianyi 耿建翌. Source: Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2017

2018: On 2 May 2018, Xi returns to Peking University, this time in the company of Wang Huning, the Party’s leading ideologue and message-sculptor. They are first taken to see an exhibition of PKU’s achievements during the first five years of the Xi Jinping era, then on to glad hand senior academics, modern-day fellow travellers and useful idiots who joined in the burlesque — including the foreign luminaries Tu Wei-ming 杜維明 and Roger Ames 安樂哲 (see below) — all of which culminates in a lecture to select student audience:

From the May Fourth era to the advent of the New Epoch of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics [under my stewardship], the Chinese Race has experienced a Great Leap from Standing Up, to Getting Rich and Becoming Powerful. This is epoch-making not only in terms of the history of Chinese race but in terms of human history itself. …

Every young person encounters unique circumstances and opportunities. I well remember the clarion slogan here at the campus of Peking University in 1981: ‘Unite to Revive China’. We must continue to chant that slogan today, a million hearts beating as one as we struggle to realise the China Dream. The broad masses of China’s youth are both pursue the Dream while being the very people who will bring it to realisation. One needs passion and idealism to pursue the dream, while to realise it one need to struggle and contribute. In their struggle China’s youth should commit all of their youthful enthusiasm and pursue the ideals of youth, while contributing that youthful, struggling self to construct the bridge leading to the Revival of the Chinese Nation, adding their own efforts as bricks and mortar to the enterprise of the Fatherland. …

We must tirelessly inculcate and advocate Core Socialist Values. In so doing we must encourage the broad masses of teachers and students to be devote believers in these Core Values, their enthusiastic proselytisers and their model exemplars. You must transmute your belief in Socialist China’s Path, Theory, System and Culture into the self-belief that you are one of the Best Universities in the World. Only if we are successful in training true builders of and successors to Chinese Socialism can our universities occupy a unique place in the world and have a voice to which people will pay attention. (from 習近平, 在北京大學師生座談會上的講話, 2 May 2018)

4 May 2018: An official Chinese media frenzy announces that Xi Jinping would give yet another important speech, this time at a gathering held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx.

In light of the interdictions against academic independence and the policing of ‘western values’ in universities, it is difficult to know how to describe Xi Jinping’s emphasis on China’s search for ‘Truth’ 真: mendacity or self-deception? He is the architect of the most calculated attack on academic freedom since the 1978 debate surrounding the idea that ‘Practice is the Sole Criterion of Truth’ 實踐是檢驗真理的唯一標準 and he smugly told his PKU audience on 2 May 2018:

You must seek the Truth, True Scholarship, train True Competences. ‘If jade is not polished it cannot become a utensil; if a person does not study they cannot learn’. Knowledge is the bedrock of every person achieving their potential. During the phase of your studies that bedrock must be deep and firm. In studying you must seek out True Scholarship, seek The Truth, achieve awareness, appreciate realities and not be satisfied with fragmented information or intellectual fast food. (from 習近平, 在北京大學師生座談會上的講話, 2 May 2018)

It was appropriate that the official slogan marking the 120th anniversary of Peking University was one that encapsulated contemporary Party double-think: 守正創新、引領未來 ‘maintain orthodoxy while seeking creativity that leads the future’. The radical tradition of May Fourth was long ago cowed by the supporters of a new Chinese orthodoxy. The hyper-modern one-party state is dedicated to training future generations who would serve the state’s aspirations, while also becoming avid consumers. The centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic 2049 offers a vision of the a sino-neo-liberalism: the End of History with Chinese Socialist Characteristics.


May Fourth to Yue Xin:

In 2018, the student who perhaps best reflected the long-lost ‘spirit of Peking University’ was Yue Xin 岳昕, a female student who confronted a twenty-first-century version of the paternalism and authoritarian intimidation that students of the May Fourth era had decried, and which many of them struggled against throughout their lives.

As Xi Jinping lectured students at PKU on 2 May 2018, China Digital Times published the following description of the Yue Xin Incident and a translation of her written protest:

The 1998 suicide of student Gao Yan after her alleged rape by a professor has become, according to The New York Times, ‘a rallying cry for China’s fledgling #MeToo movement, inspiring calls for the government to do more to prevent sexual assault and harassment.’ Over the past two weeks, a second scandal has emerged over the university’s response to requests by current students seeking school records about Gao’s case. One of them, , wrote in an open letter (translated by CDT) that she and her family had been harassed and intimidated by university authorities in a series of ‘interviews’. These culminated in a visit from a teacher accompanied by her mother in the early hours of April 23, and in her temporary departure from the university. In the letter, Yue demanded an apology, legal explanation, and an end to any further interference. The letter prompted a wave of support including a commentary in the Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, but also a heavy-handed response including restrictions on other media coverage, intense social media censorship, and heightened surveillance on campus.

In a new essay dated April 30, under her pen name Mu Tian, Yue once again thanked her supporters and lamented the pressure under which some had come. She described the ‘interview’ in the early morning of April 23 in greater detail, and pointed out alleged inaccuracies in the school’s version of events. Finally, she explained how the emotional struggles of the past week have heightened her resolve to follow the sense of social responsibility previously described in a February essay on social inequality and access to education, translated by CDT. Once again, Yue argued that those who share her privileged background owe a debt of solidarity to those less fortunate, including gōngyǒu 工友, or ‘worker friends’ — a term sometimes used by self-identified Marxists.

CDT has translated the April 30 essay. (Read the full text here.)

When, in March 2018, the 1982 Chinese Constitution was revised to allow Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely, commentators overlooked another feature of that earlier Constitution. It was in the 1982 revision, which limited the terms in office allowed to party-state leaders, that the National People’s Congress took away the last vestige of quasi-legal public expression of the Mao era: the right to criticise leaders and put up Big Character Posters 大字報.

In late April 2018, a supporter of Yue Xin put up a Big Character Poster at PKU, a campus that has seen massive poster campaigns from the 1950s to the late 1970s, and again, fleetingly, in 1989. Put up in the dead of night, the pro-Yue poster was soon removed. Immediately thereafter it was reported that the university authorities had installed CCTV cameras to prevent further unsolicited outbreaks of outspokenness. One May Fourth tradition had come full circle, except (to quote Leonard Cohen) ‘the good guys lost’.

A May Fourth Dedication

A Place Called Nowhere

On 3 May 2018, in an essay on The Right to Have Rights (Verso 2018), a small book devoted to Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the right to have rights’, Masha Gessen says:

Writing in the Verso book, the Yale law professor Samuel Moyn recalls that [Hannah] Arendt suspected that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could turn into “a set of pleasant normative assertions.” In Arendt’s estimation, Moyn writes, to parade a list of rights before people who lack basic citizenship was “something like offering a detailed inventory of the courses of a lengthy meal in the presence of the starving.” It is clear that not only can “humans exist in a place called nowhere” but, once they have lost their position in the political community, they can never be certain of regaining it.

Liu Xia 劉霞 lives in Beijing, but she exists in a place called Nowhere.

Internationally, Liu — poet, photographer, writer and the widow of Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波, the Nobel Laureate murdered by official neglect in July 2017 — is China’s most famous non-person. She’s not a political prisoner: she has broken no law; no charge has been laid against her; no formal detention or arrest has taken place; she has not ‘had her day in court’; there has been no public adjudication regarding her status and no sentence has been passed. Yet, apart from a few fleeting moments, for nearly a decade hers has been a glaring absence. She is in Beijing, but she is not living as such in that celebrated metropolis. Liu Xia has, effectively, ‘disappeared in plain sight’; to use an ancient expression from the thinker Zhuangzi 莊子 (the third century BCE) she has been ‘swallowed up by the earth’ 陸沉 .

Perhaps Liu Xia represents an evolution of the person of conscience in Xi Jinping’s New Epoch of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: despite physically still in the land of her birth, and although she has not been sent into internal exile, she is, nonetheless, a refugee. For all intents and purposes Liu is stateless: permitted to reside in the PRC she enjoys none of the flimsy rights of other citizens; she cannot even aspire to the ‘right to have rights’. Liu Xia is perforce a resident of Nowhere. Her spectral presence looms over the 2018 celebrations of May Fourth, that misshapen day that promotes the Chinese Communist version of creativity, democracy and hope for the future.

One wonders whether the acclaimed foreign experts in Chinese thought — the men on exhibit during Xi Jinping’s 2 May PKU campus visit — might not find time in their ‘sunken place’ to spare a thought for Liu Xia?

My Own May Fourth

Attentive students of China soon learn key annual dates. Foremost, there are the traditional festivals of the Lunar Calendar, many of which have been revived and redefined in the People’s Republic in recent years. These cover much of the year, from the Eve of Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival (though, in keeping with the PRC’s muscular patriotism, internationally it is now supposed to be called ‘Chinese New Year’) though to the Ninth of the Ninth 重陽 Double Brightness, all of which feature in New Sinology Jottings. Then there are the significant, and often contested, dates that reflect incidents in modern Chinese history. As we have noted here, one of the most notable of these is 4 May.

If your birthday happens to fall on one of these portentous dates, the sediment of history may well become part of, or clog, your own cycle of annual remembrance. I was born on 4 May 1954, the year Mao wrote to the Politburo about The Dream of the Red Chamber alerting his colleagues to the malign influence of Hu Shi and thereby launching an ongoing assault on academic and intellectual independence. As a student in the People’s Republic I studied Mao’s letter shortly after celebrating my twentieth birthday on a train from Beijing to Shanghai in 1975. I’m reminded of the May Fourth era and its denouement on Mainland China every twelve months.


During his 2014 visit to Peking University, Xi Jinping extended his dominance over the May Fourth tradition. That day I celebrated my sixtieth birthday with friends in Canberra. Gerald Szeto 司徒佐, the architect of the new building housing the Australian Centre on China in the World of which I was founding director, gave a public lecture about his work in Beijing. Among other things he described his earlier work on the Stanford Center at PKU as well as a commission to design the new Yenching Academy 燕京學院 being built on the campus.

The 2014 Year of the Horse was my birth year, a fateful time and one that Indian astrologers had warned me would be a time of extreme danger. I had an inkling that things would go badly on the Eve of the Lunar New Year. That night, after having given a talk about our recently published China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China 文明中華 with colleagues at Harvard University, I broke a toe. It made a mockery of one of the clichéd benedictions related to the Year of the Horse: 萬馬奔騰, ‘May all your horses gallop forth!’ Back in Australia I learned I had Stage 3 cancer. That was the beginning of the end of my formal academic life.

Today is the first time I have been able to commemorate May Fourth again with anything approaching equanimity.

— Geremie R. Barmé
4 May 2018

References and Further Reading:



  • Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine. — Ed.