The Crack-Up: A Hundred Years of Student Protests in China, with Jeffrey Wasserstrom

June 17, 2019

L to R: Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, leaders of the Umbrella Movement, at Hong Kong's High Court, August 2017.
CREDIT: Tang Huizhen/Voice of America/Public Domain

TED WIDMER: This is Ted Widmer. You're listening to another episode of The Crack-Up, an occasional podcast about the events of the year 1919, and we're very lucky today to be joined by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, chancellor's professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Welcome, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's good to be on the podcast.

TED WIDMER: Thank you for your wonderful piece in The New York Times recently on the May Fourth events in China in 1919, or as you say, "Wusi," five-four in Chinese. Why is that phrase so important in China?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There's a pattern in China of using numbers for dates to refer to moments of great importance, which we have, of course, in America with 9/11 being shorthand, but in China we have a series of them for protest movements as well as other kinds of events.

The Wusi protest is really the most famous student-led protest of the early 20th century. It's important because of what happened in 1919 itself, when a group of patriotic youths felt that China's interests were being sold out by the Treaty of Versailles and also felt that the warlords who were in control of the Chinese government at that point really didn't have the people's best interests at heart and were autocratic and were taking China backward rather than forward.

It's important because of what happened on that day, and then there was the whole groundswell of protest around the country after that, but it has also been important because ever since then later generations of protestors have looked back to the May Fourth movement, to the May Fourth moment as an inspirational moment. It looms very large in Chinese history the way an event like the Boston Tea Party looms incredibly largely in the American imagination.

TED WIDMER: Why is Versailles, in a very distant place, on the minds of young Chinese people in the spring of 1919?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: China had come into World War I on the side of the Allies. They had come in fairly late. They didn't send soldiers, but they did send laborers to support the cause.

There was a sense that they were on the winning side in World War I, and there was also a sense because of speeches that Woodrow Wilson had given and things like that that the end of World War I was going to mean the start of an era of national self-determination, a kind of end of empires. But what was actually happening in Paris was a deal was being struck to give former German possessions in China to Japan, rather than giving them back to Chinese control, so that really infuriated young Chinese and Chinese intellectuals in general, who just felt that this was grotesque. Why, when China had been on the winning side, should another country that was on the winning side, Japan, be given control of parts of China? This just didn't make sense to them, and that was one of the reasons why they were so upset.

TED WIDMER: What was the type of person leading the protests? You said "intellectual." Are these college students? Are they young professors? Are they workers? Or all of the above?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: At the initial protest it was college students at Peking University, which was then the leading Chinese institution of higher education and is still one of the leading institutions of higher education in China, by some lights the leading one. It was students who were out protesting, but they were inspired by professors and actually one librarian, who were seen as the leading progressive intellectuals of the time. They had been publishing a new journal called New Youth, Xīn de Qīngnián, that had inspired a lot of the students.

This was a time of cultural ferment, when a lot of new ideas were circulating from the outside world, ideas of liberalism, of anarchism, of socialism, of Marxism. All of these were in the mix. It was a very heady time, in some ways—to use another American example to bring it home, it's like thinking that if you talk about the 1910s in China, it's a bit like talking about the 1960s in the United States, just a time when young people were looking for new ways of thinking.

TED WIDMER: Are they generally enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution at the same time they're thinking about Woodrow Wilson and hoping that he prevails at Versailles?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Those are two of the ideas that are coming, two of the people who are looked to. It has been called the "Wilsonian moment," this time when in a lot of places people were swept up with that. In the journal New Youth in 1918 there was a very enthusiastic article published on the victory of Bolshevism that was talking about how with the Russian Revolution the red flag was going to be flown everywhere.

There was a mix of things. The students who took to the streets on the May 4, 1919, and were soon followed onto the streets by other students and also by workers and merchants and members of all different social classes that were inspired by what the students were doing and angry that the warlords had used police to rough up the students and arrest them.

The students themselves didn't have any one ideology, but they were inspired by different things, and some of the students who participated in the May Fourth protests would then a couple of years later be involved—with some of their professors and the Peking University librarian, Li Dazhao—in forming the Chinese Communist Party.

But that was just one strand within it. There were others who were very interested in liberalism. The American liberal philosopher John Dewey actually arrived in China to give lectures in exactly that spring of 1919.

TED WIDMER: That's remarkable.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: He wrote letters home about finding it very inspiring to be there, and there were people very interested in his ideas.

TED WIDMER: At that time, I gather it was possible to be pro-Russian and pro-American, that they hadn't quite formed the mutually hostile ideologies of what we think of as the Cold War. Were Americans largely held in high esteem by young Chinese students?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There was a lot of eclecticism. There were people who would also kind of try on one ideology and move on to another. There would be people who would think maybe anarchism was the way to go.

There was a lot of admiration for Western ideas, a sense that what China needed to do was become modern: It needed to become modern, it needed to have a stronger state, it needed to be able to protect itself in a dangerous world, and it needed somehow to fully break with the patterns of the past that had held it back.

In 1911 there had been a revolution that did away with the dynastic system, and there was a lot of excitement then about the idea that China was moving into a completely new direction. It had a new name—it was the Republic of China—it had a president initially, Sun Yat-sen, who was eclectic himself and talked about his admiration for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but was also admiring of socialism.

TED WIDMER: Hadn't he been to the United States as a young man?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: He spent time in the United States, and he actually was in Colorado when the revolution of 1911 took place. He was later described as the leader of it. Groups that he was involved with had been involved with it, but he actually read about it in the newspaper while he was in America trying to raise money for his campaigns to change China.

TED WIDMER: If there's all that excitement and a pretty interesting liberal leader of China in Sun Yat-sen, why doesn't that revolution succeed and excite the young people?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: He gets muscled out of power very quickly. The 1911 revolution was in part military mutinies against the Qing Dynasty. There were revolutionaries involved, but there were also troops that mutinied. A lot of the troops were still under control of General Yuan Shikai, who had been a general under the Qing but had thrown his chips in with the revolution. But then, very quickly after a new republic was established, he muscled Sun Yat-sen out of power and took control of the country.

In 1915 he went a step further and proclaimed himself a new emperor and established a new dynasty. That was one of the things that really convinced progressive intellectuals that a revolution that had just changed the formal political system hadn't done enough to set China on a modernizing track. So, there were protests in 1915 against the new monarchy being formed. There were also protests in 1915 against moves by Japan then to try to strike special deals with Yuan Shikai and the other warlords.

In a sense, even though May 4, 1919, stands out very dramatically as a starting point for protest movements, there were—as often happens with protests—lead-ups to it, and the period from 1915, which is also when that journal New Youth is founded, to 1919 you can see it as a kind of incubating period for the May Fourth movement when it explodes.

TED WIDMER: Are these young students modern in the way they organize their rallies and their protests and communicate around the country?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There are a variety of techniques that they use. In some ways they're stepping into a quite traditional role within China of scholars serving as the conscience of the nation, intellectuals speaking truth to power. There's a long tradition of that in China that goes back into the dynastic period.

But they're also using some quite modern techniques. They're using circular telegraph. They're sending telegrams around. They're using techniques that have been used in earlier protests within China. It's always hard to tell with certain techniques where they start, but boycotts of foreign goods is one of the things they start. Once the May Fourth movement picks up there's a boycott of Japanese goods. In 1905 there had been a boycott of American goods to protest America's Chinese Exclusion Act. At that point, merchants had been some of the leading forces.

It's one of those things where a lot of different techniques that have been around—it's a mixture of new things. Strikes are relatively new. There's a labor strike; there's a general strike actually in the city of Shanghai, the place other than Beijing that has the biggest protests. It's a mix of those and also some quite traditional things. One thing that students do to show their passion is some of them bite their fingers and write out in blood, "Give back our Qingdao," one of the territories that had been German and that was given to Japan.

One thing I should mention is at the actual May Fourth moment, the protest itself, while these are students who are influenced by cosmopolitan ideas and they're talking a lot about philosophy, they were also just furious, and they went on a bit of a rampage and attacked the home of one of the officials they particularly saw as selling out the country. So it was a rowdy event.

But then there was a sense that the police had used more force than they needed to quell it, and there were students who were injured, and one of them later died as a result of his injuries, and so some of the protests during the May Fourth movement took the form of memorial services for him. They could have both the traditional mode to them, but then they were also linked to these new forms of protest, like a general strike.

TED WIDMER: What happens in the short run? They're massing in Beijing, and you tell the readers about the very special place in Beijing where they are massing, and then what happens as a result?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: The protests spread through the country. One reason it can spread easily is that there had been a group of students in Japan from different parts of the country who the year before had left Japan as a sign of protest against the brewing of this kind of selling out of China to Japan. They were scattered around the country and had connected with each other from being involved in a 1918 protest in Japan.

So there are very quickly protests in a variety of other Chinese cities. They reach their height in Shanghai, which is the industrial, commercial, and trading hub of China. It's also a center of higher education. There are several schools there that are important. There is a general strike there that paralyzes the city.

The protests succeed in certain kinds of goals. Three of the officials that they particularly hated are dismissed from office, which was one of the student demands; students who are arrested in Beijing are released, which was another student demand; and the Chinese delegation to the Treaty of Versailles agrees to not sign the Treaty if it has these hated terms in it. They succeed on those fronts.

TED WIDMER: That's a pretty big success.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's a big success. It doesn't stop the Treaty of Versailles from going into effect. It doesn't stop those territories from being handed from Germany to Japan, but it's enough of a success that people of later generations can look back to it and say that this is a sign of what collective action can accomplish.

TED WIDMER: You mention a young activist in Hunan who is also playing close attention.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Mao Zedong was one of the youths who was inspired by Peking University intellectuals. He wasn't in Beijing for the actual May Fourth protests, but he was part of this whole milieu. He was of that generation and involved in the activism.

The fact that he was involved in it is one of the reasons—and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party was formed later by a small group that included him as well as some of the other May Fourth activists who had been students and some of the professors and the librarian—why the May Fourth movement is celebrated within the People's Republic of China as a founding moment because the story of May Fourth is told as if the main point of it was to lead teleologically two years later inevitably to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and that then that set in motion a kind of glorious road to 1949 and the founding of a new People's Republic of China, and so forth, on from them.

Of course, it's a tricky kind of event to look back to and celebrate once you're a party in a control and you don't want students to take to the street, and you especially don't want students to take to the street and say that you are unfit to rule in the way that in 1919 people called out the warlords as unfit to rule.

TED WIDMER: Right. I suppose that takes us to the extraordinary end of your piece, where you bring the reader into Tiananmen Square in 1989, 70 years later. Can you talk about all the tensions of history in that moment?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Tiananmen Square is a monument-filled area. The monuments came in the 1950s, and one of the monuments includes a frieze that celebrates the events of 1919. That square is exactly in the spot where the students of 1919 came.

One of the really dramatic moments, symbolically fascinating moments of 1989, was when students who were gathering in Tiananmen Square—they were protesting already then—stood in front of the frieze that showed the heroes of 1919 and read out a new May Fourth Manifesto, saying, "Once again the nation is experiencing a threat. The wrong kinds of people are in charge. We need to get it on the right track again, and we represent the spirit of 1919, the May Fourth spirit."

At the same time nearby, just off the square, the old leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are meeting to say, "Let's look back at the wonderful events of 70 years ago that brought us to the point we are here." The officials are denigrating what's going on in the square, saying that the students are rioters and that they're imposters. They don't talk about them in quite this way, but if they were asked "Are those the inheritors of May Fourth?", they'd say, "No. Those are imposters. If anything, they're the inheritors of the chaotic Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. We in this hall, the Communist Party, represent the spirit of May Fourth."

Conversely, on the square, the students are saying, "Those people inside the Great Hall of the People having their ceremony about May Fourth, they're imposters if they talk about representing the May Fourth spirit. If anything, they're like the warlords of that time, autocrats who don't allow dissent and are taking China in the wrong direction, are blocking China from moving forward."

TED WIDMER: Right. A bunch of old guys, yes.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Yes, yes.

TED WIDMER: We know the results of 1989. How does modern China think about those two events together, 1919 and 1989? Is it possible to celebrate both or not?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: On the mainland you can't talk about 1989 at all. You can't talk on the mainland about the events. It's dangerous. The government tried very early after 1989 to put forward its line that there had been riots, that it had been quelled by brave soldiers, but for well over two decades they've simply tried to stomp out all discussion of it.

May Fourth is still talked about, but it's talked about in a very specific way. The focus is increasingly just on the anti-imperialist side of 1919, not the openness to Western ideas, not even so much the criticism of autocratic rule, but really a patriotic story, a nationalistic story.

There are places where both May Fourth and 1989 are talked about outside of the mainland. I was very struck by a tweet that Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of Hong Kong's protest, who right now is in prison as a prisoner of conscience serving a short prison term for active civil disobedience. He tweeted before going back into prison to stay this time an image that just said, "1919, 1989, 2014"—2014 was the year of the Umbrella Movement, a big protest in Hong Kong that he was involved in—and his tweet just showed three images, one of massive crowds in Tiananmen Square in 1989, students protesting on what would become Tiananmen Square by the Tiananmen Gate in 1919, and then crowds in Hong Kong in 2014. That to me is even more poignant right now because Hong Kong is where people are on the streets right now.

TED WIDMER: As we speak. [Editor's note: This interview was conducted on Friday, June 14, before any of the Hong Kong protesters' demands were agreed to.]

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: As continuing this kind of May Fourth spirit.

I was in Hong Kong on June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 massacre that ended that new May Fourth movement, and Hong Kong and Macao are the only parts of the People's Republic of China where you can commemorate the martyrs of 1989. Remember, commemorating martyrs is always an important part of this tradition.

In Hong Kong there was a giant crowd, estimated at over 100,000 people, holding up candles in Victoria Park to look back to 1989. They didn't mention 1919, but of course in 1989 people were looking back to 1919. But in Victoria Park on June 4 at this big vigil they were looking back to 1989, commemorating that, and the speakers were saying, "And turn out on the street on Sunday, June 9," when there was going to be a big protest against an extradition law that may people in Hong Kong view as doing away with the things that make Hong Kong very different in terms of rule of law, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. I think it's very striking that in many ways in Hong Kong it seems to me more of the real spirit of 1919 is alive than it is on the mainland right now.

TED WIDMER: That's so interesting.

How about online? There are, of course, Chinese all around the world and many in the United States. How do they talk about 1919 and 1989 when they're living in different countries?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There are efforts in different places to talk about both of them. There are always efforts to get around censorship. It's important to know that there are some ways in which some knowledge of even taboo subjects can make its way into China. There are some people who try within China—I think it's worth saying there are some quite daring people who try to revive different parts of the 1919 spirit online.

There's a group of new Marxists on Chinese mainland campuses who have recently been repressed who are basically calling on the Chinese Communist Party to really live up to its claim to care about workers and was expressing solidarity for workers who were agitating for better conditions in other parts of China. Whether they talk about 1919 explicitly or not, in some ways they are connecting with one part of that 1919 tradition, that reaching across class borders.

There are also people who do clever things to try to talk about 1989, even though it can't be talked about, and censors catch up with them. For a while, since you couldn't talk about June 4, the date of the 1989 massacre, you couldn't say the words. Getting back to numbers, May 4 is five-four. You couldn't say "six-four," which is the term for Liu Si, which is the term for June 4, the date of the 1989 massacre. So some people would say, "Let's remember what happened on May 35," and for a while that worked. It took a while for the censors to realize, "May 35, that's not a real date. What would it be if we—well, May has 31 days. Okay, June 4," and so then they would block that. Those are the kinds of things that people can do.

When some people were angry at Xi Jinping, the current head of the Chinese Communist Party and also president of the country, last year there was a change in the constitution that meant instead of him only being able to serve two five-year terms that he could serve potentially indefinitely, and to criticize him what some people did was post up a picture of Yuan Shikai, the president from 1915 who proclaimed himself an emperor.

TED WIDMER: Fascinating.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: If you had said, "Xi Jinping shouldn't act like a new emperor," that would be immediately be taken down, but maybe for a few minutes putting up Yuan Shikai would be something that people who knew their history would get the reference, but it wouldn't be taken down right away. That's the kind of thing that can go on online that's really fascinating and shows just how much creativity there is among critical-thinking Chinese.

TED WIDMER: When you were talking about the new Marxists and calling on a kind of distant elite to pay attention to workers, it almost sounds like the "yellow jackets" in France. It feels almost like a global phenomenon of people who don't feel cared about by their home governments.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There's a way in which all kinds of things circulate in a moment of discontent. There are a lot of spaces where in different countries people draw on all kinds of resources from their country's radical past in different times.

There are a variety of things. I guess another example of connecting across different places, I mentioned the Umbrella Movement of 2014 in Hong Kong, which was in part connecting up with traditions of Chinese protest and in part connecting up with traditions of very specifically Hong Kong protest, but it actually began as an Occupy movement. There was a call for Occupy Central by people who were aware of things like Occupy Wall Street.

At the same time, there were protests in Taiwan, a place that people in Hong Kong pay a lot of attention to. Early in 2014 there was something called the Sunflower Movement, where a group of youth in Taiwan occupied the legislature building.

There are certain moments in history—and 1919 is a great example of that—where there are events going on in different parts of the world that have their local meanings but also make you feel that there's something in the air: 1919, 1968, 1989. These are all these kinds of moments, and certainly there's a lot going on in the 2010s.

TED WIDMER: Do you think 1919 will continue to have that resonance well into the 21st century? Is it that big in the Chinese historical memory?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I think it will stay in Chinese historical memory because it is something to keep going back to. I think the fact that there was the connection between 1919 and 1989 helps keep that alive.

It is noticeable. The People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, and so people in Chinese studies have often said, "What is it about years that end with nine?" There are so many like that. Now, whatever happens next in Hong Kong, it does seem that 2019 is going to be remembered as one of the really pivotal years in that very special city's history. So again, I think this tradition of years that end in nine being dramatic ones for protest and for other kinds of changes is continuing.

TED WIDMER: Jeff, I can't thank you enough. What a fascinating conversation. You really brought a lot of history to life, and we're all grateful to you.

Thank you, Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's great to have this opportunity, and it was great to have the opportunity to write the piece for The New York Times. It has really been a special thing to be able to do.

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