Versailles' Chinese legacy

May 21, 1999

Wang Gungwu argues that the state has encouraged youth to reclaim the mantle of Peking University radicalism

Few universities just 100 years old can claim a major contribution to their country's historical transformation. Peking University, founded in 1898, had the distinction of doing just that in 1919, when only in its 20th year.

The western imperial powers at the Versailles conference had agreed to let their ally, Japan, take over her special rights in the Chinese province of Shandong from the defeated enemy, Germany. China had also been an ally and had expected to get Shandong back from Germany. Its anger at the decision to let Japan have her war trophy was understandable.

Owing to the exceptional collection of liberal-minded professors at Peking University, some of the university's very bright students led demonstrations through the streets of Beijing, on May 4 1919, to protest against what they considered a dastardly betrayal of their country.

This caught the tide of nationalist awakening and led to similar protests in every city. Ultimately, it became a movement associated with the rejection of Confucianism and superstitious religions, the Baihua (popular language) literature movement, the calls for new philosophy and scientism, and the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.

Because it embraced modernising ideas and institutions, it came to be widely recognised as one that made a "cultural revolution" possible, on top of the republican revolution that Sun Yat-sen had started in 1911. The university, which backed most of the changes, has celebrated the May 4 Movement whenever allowed.

In 1989, its students were preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary when the popular, disgraced secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party died suddenly. The demonstrations began early and May 4 was celebrated by thousands of students joining the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Thirty days later, on June 4 1989, the protests ended in tragedy, with dire consequences to the students, to Peking University and others, and to the country's international position.

This year, the urge to celebrate 80 years was stronger than ever. Expectations were that the university would use the occasion to signal at least the restoration of its academic vitality and its liberal heritage. They were not disappointed. National leaders had decided to link the historic movement with the potential contributions of patriotic youth, and organised numerous celebrations, meetings and conferences in April. Peking University held a purely academic conference in early May, four days before the tragic bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. If the two had coincided, the whole conference would have been obliged to join in the protests with the kind of vigour expected.

The conference was a modest affair, with selected participants representing a wide range of institutions from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and ten invited scholars, totalling 120. It achieved the objective of acknowledging the university's special claims and showing the government's careful support, but avoided the fierce enthusiasm that many might have expected.

It provided one of the correct messages that were sent out to all those who had hoped for a more political occasion, some sort of prelude to commemorating June 4 in Tiananmen Square.

There were a number of papers on May 4 protagonists who were not communists and even those who had been anti-communists. Several had been denigrated by the Communist Party both before and after 1949, for example, activists like Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi and some writers and philosophers who rejected Marxism or socialist literary criticism.

Some revisionism has been going on among more senior scholars for several years, but it was interesting that so many young Chinese scholars showed appreciation of "unapproved" people. In some papers, they revealed their excitement to have found so many young people in the 1910s and 1920s who had expressed modern ideas and clamoured for change.

Peking University has always claimed the right to lead the country in protest against corruption, injustice and political reaction. What is remarkable is that the national government in China is once again confident enough to recognise May 4 1919, as a symbol of the willingness of China's young people to turn away from degenerate tradition and turn to modern values like freedom, democracy and science. By doing so it has achieved three goals.

First, the Chinese leaders have identified the May 4 Movement as a national concern. By encouraging all official centres to draw attention to its significance for young people, they have sought to appropriate for themselves its values. This should help them project a more sympathetic image on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

Second, they have diffused the explosive character of student demonstrations by inviting many of them to the celebrations that have been officially organised. From pupils in kindergartens and primary schools to the older students in secondary and tertiary education, they have been selectively brought along to commemorate the positive and modernising features of an inspiring patriotic movement.

They have also allowed Peking University to organise a national and international conference as a scholarly event. They thus recognised the need to reassess the movement's place in history. They also made clear that the movement is no longer the elitist affair of the university and its privileged students, but something that the leaders now believe should, under their care, belong to all the nation's young people.

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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