'Inconvenient' anniversaries to be played down

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2009, 12:00am

China make a big deal out of commemorating most anniversaries, but the true political and cultural significance of two key events in the nation's modern history will pass largely unnoticed today.

The first is the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement and the second is the 111th anniversary of the founding of Peking University, where students launched the landmark literary///??? revolution in 1919.

The May Fourth Movement began when 3,000 students marched to Tiananmen Square, protesting against a decision at the Paris Peace Conference, after the first world war, to award Japan control of German concessions in Shandong province . They also protested against the idea of imperial rule, making the movement both a touchstone of Chinese nationalism and historic proof that people could challenge their rulers. It soon encompassed a broader debate about how China should modernise, with two slogans calling for democracy and science.

The May Fourth Movement was a watershed in modern Chinese history, adding impetus to the leftist intellectual New Culture Movement that grew into the Communist Party in 1921.

Peking University, the mainland's first modern university and foremost centre of learning, was founded on December 17, 1898. But the Communist government changed the date to May 4 to stress the role that professors and students from the prestigious campus played in the May Fourth and New Culture movements. Communists view the movements as paving the way for the introduction of Marxist-Leninist thought to China.

Zhang Ming , a professor who has written many articles on the May Fourth Movement, said it had 'nurtured many communist leaders, such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao , the founding fathers and leading figures in the early days of the party in the 1920s', but had played an even bigger role in shaping China's modern history.

While the Communist leadership claimed that the May Fourth Movement's call for democracy was fulfilled when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, liberal intellectuals say the promises of the 90-year-old protests have not yet been realised.

Sha Jiansun , a historian at Peking University, said the May Fourth Movement marked the start of China's national renaissance and the introduction of Marxism to China.

But Professor Zhang defined the legacy of the May Fourth Movement as the New Culture Movement; the spread of a political culture that said citizens could challenge rulers; and the social-reform movement in the Middle Kingdom.

He said the May Fourth Movement had triggered the sweeping importation of western thinking, modern science and modern education into China throughout the 20th century, which had also inspired change in contemporary Communist-ruled history.

'We can even say that without the May Fourth Movement we Chinese would not have had the wisdom and courage to introduce the reform and openness policy 30 years ago,' Professor Zhang said.

He said the May Fourth Movement had also inspired many political protests, including the April 5 protest against the extreme leftist rule of the Gang of Four in 1976, campus student protests throughout the 1980s, and most recently the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1989. The 20th anniversary of the crushing of that movement by troops in Tiananmen Square falls exactly one month after that of the May Fourth Movement.

'Since 1919, protests led by Peking University students in Tiananmen Square have become regular events and a symbol of modern Chinese history,' Professor Zhang said.

Communist leaders have made May 4 China's Youth Day and routinely hold official cerebrations to mark the anniversaries of the May Fourth Movement and the founding of Peking University. But they do their best to ignore the calls for democracy and academic freedom that accompany them.

Peking University has played a significant role in the mainland's turbulent history of the past century. It has been at the centre of various movements, from Kang Youwei's and Liang Qichao's Constitutional Reform and Modernisation of 1898 to the New Culture Movement, the May Fourth Movement, the December Ninth Movement of the Republican Period, all the way to the 1989 nationwide, student-led pro-democracy movement.

The spirit of the university portrayed in Communist Party propaganda differed from its past liberal tradition, and ignored the oppression experienced by teachers and students over the past 50 years, several Peking University professors said. Victims of Communist rule, particularly during the extreme leftist period under Mao Zedong before 1976, include Ma Yinchu , an early university president, who was branded by the late leader as a rightist because of his academic research. Wang Dan , a student leader, was jailed for his participation in the 1989 movement, and several of his schoolmates were jailed or exiled to western nations.

'To tell the truth, many scholars at Peking University have become victims of authoritarian rule in the past century as rulers, either the imperial, nationalist or Communist governments, do not like liberal thinking and have failed to accommodate the spirit of tradition embodied by the university,' one Peking University professor said. Professor Zhang said both anniversaries had clearly been designed to serve the Communist Party's political interests, with the government ignoring the May Fourth Movement's slogans calling for science and democracy.

This year the Communist leadership is faced with a series of politically sensitive anniversaries, including the 50th anniversary of a Tibetan revolt, the 10th anniversary of major protests by the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which led to thousands of arrests, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1. Because of that, and with laid-off workers continuing to stage protests, Beijing has moved to choke off any political dissent.

The government has a dedicated approach towards both historic events, often selectively emphasising the patriotic aspects of the May Fourth Movement since 1989.

'Only the Chinese Language Department will hold seminars this week,' said Xu Yong , a history professor at Peking University.

Xu Zhiyong , a human rights lawyer and campaigner from Beijing Postal University, said the authorities had rejected any applications to hold non-government-sanctioned activities to commemorate the historic events.

He said few people dared to challenge the ban on unsanctioned activities because the government had been sending an important message to its people since 1989: if you organise political dissent, you will go to jail.

Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when students at Peking University and other campuses in the national capital were actively involved in well-attended 'salon' discussion sessions of sensitive topics, today's students seem indifferent to politics.

'We are coming of age in a China that is more prosperous than at any time in its history, a different breed than those who marched to Tiananmen Square in 1919, 1976 and 1989,' Peking University student Zheng Hong said.

'Most of our classmates do not believe they have the luxury of talking about idealism and politics in this highly commercialised environment, as we are busy acquiring work skills and searching for a job in an increasingly competitive market.'

Professor Zhang said: 'China's booming economy has offered more opportunities to the well-educated than at any other time and therefore, some might argue, fewer incentives to rebel. That does not mean that there will be no repetition of pro- democracy protests like the ones 90 and 20 years ago.'

He said the aftershocks of those historic events would still be felt in the hearts of many Chinese young people as long as the mainland was not a democracy.