China's Season of Protests





Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know," (Oxford, 2010).

There's a special significance to the fact that, thanks to a strike wave at Honda factories in Foshan, Chinese protests are making headlines at this particular time of year ... yet again. This is because there's a long tradition of outbursts of unrest occurring in China between early May and early June. It shows through in the very names of protest surges: three of the best-known protest surges of the last century were the May 4th Movement (1919), the May 30th Movement (1925), and the June 4th Movement (1989).

The name of the first of these struggles comes from the date of a rowdy demonstration by patriotic students. Angered that Japan was bullying China (trying to wrest control of former German-controlled territories in Shandong Province) and that corrupt officials were not taking a tough enough stand to protect the nation, they gathered by the Gate of Heavenly Peace on ground that later became known as Tiananmen Square.

The May 30th Movement, which broke out six years later, also had a nationalistic and anti-Japanese side to it, but this time worker strikes rather than student marches started things off. The strikes began earlier in May, but the struggle's name refers to the date of a massacre, which took place exactly eighty-five years ago today, that was carried out by a foreign-run police force in Shanghai.

The third event in the series is the best known in the West, though the names for it used outside of China tend to focus on the place, Tiananmen Square, where the protests took place. The standard Chinese term for the struggle, by contrast, follows in the time-honored tradition of focusing on a date. It's called the June 4th Movement to honor the day in 1989 when hundreds of protesters and onlookers were slain in Beijing.

International commentators will surely have the most to say about the protests of 1989 this week. This is because the anniversary of the June 4th Massacre regularly triggers reflection on how China has and hasn't changed in recent years. Still, as important as looking back to 1989 remains (I'll likely be writing on the topic myself in the coming days, as I have done in past year), the other two famous springtime historical struggles named for dates are more helpful points of references when it comes to putting the latest headlines into perspective.

This is because grievances associated with Japan or Japanese companies were not involved in the 1989 protest, as they are now and were in 1919 and 1925. And the most relevant of the three historic protest waves just now is the May 30th Movement, due to these three basic things that the 1925 unrest and the 2010 Foshan strikes have in common:

  1. The May 30th Movement began with strikes by workers who demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form unions—demands that echo those in play now in Foshan.

  2. Eighty-five years ago, like today, Japanese companies were at the center of things, though the May 30th Movement started with walkouts at Japanese-owned textile mills rather than auto plants.

  3. In 1925, as again in recent days, issues of class and nationalism have become intertwined. One grievance among Chinese employees of Honda, according to some reports at least, is that their wages lag far behind those of Japanese at the same plants.

Don't get me wrong, there's no reason to think that we are witnessing the start of a twenty-first century counterpart to any great twentieth century struggle. The May 30th Movement evolved from a series of local strikes to a national upheaval, and there's no sign of that happening now. And the greatest long-term importance of the 1925 protests lay in the way they swelled the ranks of the country's two main radical groups, both the well-established Nationalist Party (that later took a conservative turn under Chiang Kai-shek) and a fledgling organization known as the Chinese Communist Party. China's current leaders do not allow competing political organizations to exist, so none are around to capitalize the Foshan strikes or do publicity work to help them grow.

Another key difference between 1925 and the present is that, thankfully, there's been no violence in Foshan. The May 30th Movement first picked up steam, weeks before the massacre that gave it its name, when a worker at a factory was killed by Japanese at the plant, giving the protesters a martyr to inspire them. Then, on May 30 itself, things reached a fevered pitch, when members of the Shanghai Municipal Police fired into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators that included many students, killing several people (The crowd had gathered outside of a jail to call for the release of Shanghai students arrested earlier for distributing pamphlets that expressed support for the striking workers and anger at the fact that foreigners controlled parts of their city).

The May 30th Movement is worth remembering now on its anniversary (an anniversary that has been discussed in the Chinese press, though not with any references to Foshan, of course), even if the contrasts just noted illustrate how unlikely it is that the events of 1925 will provide any kind of template for how things will develop from here in the labor disputes involving Honda plants. Looking back to 1925 matters for a different reason. It matters because the May 30th Movement is celebrated as a great revolutionary upsurge in the same Chinese textbooks that also extol the virtues of the May 4th Movement but are completely silent about the June 4th Massacre, and there is even a statue and plaque commemorating the martyrs of 1925 in the center of Shanghai. This means it is surely one of the occurrences whose memory is encouraging China's leaders to tread very lightly in responding to the labor unrest in Foshan.

The New York Times, in an important report late last week on Honda strikes, highlighted the special significance of troubles at Japanese factories. These posed, the paper's Keith Bradsher stressed, "a particular dilemma for Chinese authorities" because of "latent anti-Japanese sentiment that has lingered since the 1930s, when Japanese troops occupied most of coastal China." He went on to note that "hostility toward Japan has periodically surfaced in large public rallies" in recent years, and that this has caused concern because of an awareness by the state that "nationalism has historically tended to morph into criticism against officials" who are blamed "for failing to stand up to foreign powers." The result, they say, is that "anger at Japan has made it harder for municipal officials to send in the police to break up strikes on behalf of Japanese managers."

This summary hits many key points. It would have been even better, though, if the newspaper had they taken its readers back beyond the 1930s. To 1919 and the May 4th Movement, which until 1989 was the best known of all Chinese student-led struggles and led to three officials deemed to pro-Japanese losing their jobs—or at least to 1925 and the May 30th Movement.

We should remember that the Communist Party has long been diligent about keeping alive the memory of the struggles that paved the way for its founding (the May 4th Movement fits here) and helped it grow in strength (as the May 30th did). And we should remember, especially as the anniversary of the May 30th Movement arrives, that while a key chapter in the story of anti-Japanese sentiment and nationalist protests becoming a source of concern for Chinese leaders unfolded in the 1930s, the tale's roots go back a bit farther than that.

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