Why China Was So Worried About Those Student Protests

News Abroad

Mr. Wasserstrom is Professor of History at Indiana University, where he also serves as Director of the East Asian Studies Center. A past contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as other general interest periodicals such as the Nation and the TLS, his books include Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford University Press, 1991) and several edited or co-edited volumes such as Human Rights and Revolutions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) and Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches (Routledge, 2003).

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BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- Beijing's Tiananmen Square was closed to the public on Wednesday for a government-organized coming-of-age ceremony for 18 year olds, state media reported, an apparent attempt to thwart any anti-Japanese protests. Western reports on the recent anti-Japanese protests by Chinese students have often stressed the need to pay attention to one sort of historical issue: ongoing controversies related to Japan’s treatment of its World War II atrocities. But to make sense fully of what has been going on in China, it is equally important, as some commentators have noted, to keep in mind a different sort of history: the history of Chinese youth movements. To understand why a regime that initially seemed content to allow and even encourage anti-Japanese demonstrations suddenly switched gears a couple of weeks ago and began to try to get educated youths off the streets, it is crucial to look backward to what Beijing students have done in May, and on May 4th in particular, in the past. The month of May is always one of the most symbolically charged ones in China’s political calendar – and sometimes a particularly dangerous month for those in power. And the fourth day of May is the most symbolically charged day of all.

This is because it marks the anniversary of a rowdy patriotic action, the May 4th demonstrations of 1919, whose place in China’s political mythology is roughly comparable to the Boston Tea Party. Exactly 86 years ago, students rampaged through Beijing decrying Japanese imperialism and calling for the dismissal of corrupt ministers of the Warlord government, which was considered too soft on Japan (one of whose houses the protesters destroyed). After doing so, some of the students were roughed up and arrested by policemen, with one student later dying from his injuries. Since many of the people who would soon afterward found the Communist Party cut their political teeth during this and subsequent protests, which are known collectively as the May 4th Movement, each generation of PRC students is taught about and encouraged to emulate the heroes of 1919.

Every year, the May 4 anniversary date becomes the occasion for countless editorials in newspapers and speeches on campuses that celebrate the great contributions that students have made in the past and can continue to make to strengthen China and carry forward the sacred revolutionary mission. Sometimes, however, as the anniversary date nears, Party leaders find themselves wishing that a new generation had not taken the lessons of May 4 quite so much to heart. This has been such a year. Worries about what May 4 could bring, if the anti-Japanese upsurge continued to gain momentum, help account for the mid-April about-face on the protests signaled by sternly worded editorials calling for an immediate end to street actions.

Initially, officials seem to have been confident that they could channel and control popular outrage, perhaps even use student-led demonstrations to divert attention from domestic issues that are the source of widespread discontent, such as corruption and the fraying of social welfare safety nets in an era of capitalism run wild. One reason for this early confidence was that the CCP had successfully ridden the tiger of popular nationalism in precisely this fashion in 1999, when anti-U.S. protests erupted after NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

By mid-April, however, some leaders began to fear that the current movement would spin in new directions – the same fear that in 1999 led to efforts to curtail anti-U.S. demonstrations. A particular cause for concern last month was an Internet call for demonstrations on both May 1, which has special meaning for workers in China as in many parts of the world, and May 4, which has such a special meaning for Chinese students.

If demonstrations on these dates occurred, officials concluded, the movement might evolve into something that would prove dangerous not just for Japanese nationals and businesses – the objects of some nasty rhetorical and physical violence – but also the regime. New grievances might begin to be voiced and new social groups might become active. And this would increase the similarities to the multi-stranded May 4th Movement of 1919 – a struggle that was triggered by anger over the Treaty of Versailles giving Japan control of parts of Shandong but was more than just an anti-Japanese campaign. Though it was a struggle that was initiated by students, workers joined in givbing it added clout. The struggle ended with three officials, who were seen as particularly corrupt and pro-Japanese, being forced to resign.

If we turn from the history of the May 4th Movement itself to the history of later student struggles, moreover, we see a good basis for such concern. The current leadership knows that, in the past, the arrival of politically charged anniversaries has often galvanized campus activists and taken student movements in new directions.

When this happened prior to 1949, this phenomenon often benefited the Communists. Those cases are unlikely to seem worrisome to current leaders. But more recent cases are a different matter. In 1985, anti-Japanese protests, which had some support initially from factions within the CCP leadership, broke out in September, just as the anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria was being marked. And more protests took place three months later on the arrival of the fiftieth anniversary of the December 9th Movement, an anti-Japanese, anti-Nationalist Party struggle that is the second most famous student-led campaign of the pre-1949 era.

A year later, in 1986, when I happened to be in Shanghai doing research on pre-1949 campus activism, I witnessed firsthand the complex links that can develop between anniversaries and new movements. A series of student marches that served as a kind of dress rehearsal for Tiananmen began early in December. This time the issues had nothing to do with Japan: youths took to the streets to call for speedier political reforms and less government interference in campus life. Nevertheless, the protests once again gained momentum as the December 9 anniversary neared. First campus bulletin boards were plastered with official posters reminding youths of the brave deeds of the patriotic students of 1935, and then unofficial placards were placed on top of these calling on a new generation of educated youths to take to the streets.

And, of course, this was followed two-and-a-half years later by a more dramatic illustration of the same phenomenon. May 4’s arrival was destined to have special meaning in 1989, simply because it would mark the seventieth anniversary of the 1919 struggle, and such round number anniversaries tend to be celebrated in particularly energetic ways. Adding to this was the fact that the student-led upsurge of 1989 began in mid-April and by the end of that month, despite forcefully written editorials calling for an end to street actions, was still gathering steam.

Things reached an early boiling point on May 4. Tiananmen demonstrators organized their own celebratory rallies, which stole the thunder from gatherings sponsored by the government, and issued a manifesto stating that they were the true successors to the heroes of 1919. After all, these self-styled “New May 4th” activists insisted, they were laying their lives on the line to save China from authoritarian misrule.

The government responded to this attempted appropriation of May 4th symbolism by insisting that the CCP continued to represent the ideals of 1919 and by arguing that the protests at Tiananmen Square was no “New May 4th Movement,” but rather the work of “New Red Guards” (a term I first saw in late 1986 official campus bulletins calling for an end to that year’s protests). And, the government claimed, extending this denigrating analogy, there were “hidden hands” behind the movement striving to create “turmoil” of the sort that had devastated China during the Cultural Revolution.

This year, once again, the anniversary arrives amidst debates over the legacy of 1919. Officials have insisted – as in many previous years – that students could best express their patriotism on May 4 by studying hard and staying on campus. But some anti-Japanese protesters have claimed that militancy is the most appropriate way to show fealty to the memory of the May 4th activists.

Some of today’s students clearly see continuities with the past in their outrage over Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and claims to sovereignty over disputed islands. After all, one thing that inspired the heroes of 1919 to demonstrate – and sometimes, their largely deserved saintly image notwithstanding, to rough up Japanese nationals and Chinese who were thought of as too pro-Japanese – was Japan’s efforts to lay claim to land seen as rightly belonging to China. And one thing that angered some of the May 4 th Movement’s early successors, such as participants in the December 9 th Movement, was the inability of the League of Nations, a precursor of the U.N., to limit Japanese ambitions.

The Chinese government has responded to this latest appropriation of the May 4th legacy in a very familiar way. In addition to claiming that – since China is now in the hands of a strong Communist Party – there is no need for sustained mass actions, some editorials have referred to protests as involving a manipulation of popular feeling that is dangerously reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

Early reports suggest that this strategy – a heavy police presence in key cities – has succeeded in preventing major protests, and a heavily guarded Tiananmen Square, the site about which the regime was for understandable reasons most concerned, has been quiet. But this victory does not mean that the leadership can now breathe easily. The rest of the year is filled with interesting – and potentially provocative – anniversary dates. Later this month comes the 80th anniversary of the May 30th Movement of 1925, for example, another struggle in which students were involved and anti-Japanese sentiments were in play. Then comes the sixtieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender, followed by the often-volatile September 18 and December 9 anniversaries that sparked anti-Japanese protests exactly twenty years ago.

How worried should the regime be? On the one hand, there is no reason to think that students will ever again follow the same circuitous route that two decades ago ran from small-scale, partly stage-managed anti-Japanese outbursts in 1985 (which were thought at the time to have been supported by opponents of the then-new economic and political reforms); to the larger and more pro-reform demonstrations of late 1986; to the massive upheaval of 1989. And though there are many discontented people in China right now, there are things that make it unlikely that today’s students will be able to – or even want to – make common cause with them. This generation of educated youths is, after all, in many ways less thoroughly alienated from the regime than were their predecessors of 1989.

Even if it seems doubtful that today’s students will end up spearheading a movement similar to the Tiananmen one, though, the current leadership knows that the circuitous route from 1985 to 1989 has a place on the Chinese historical map. And it is easy to see why this knowledge, as well as familiarity with other unexpected twists and turns that student movements have taken over the years, especially when there is such widespread concern with official corruption (an issue that played a role in the May 4th Movement and in 1989), would be a source of anxiety for any government leader with a sense of history.

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