BEIJING — One hundred years after thousands of Chinese students marched on Tiananmen Square in a watershed revolt, President Xi Jinping was expected on Tuesday to use the memory of the protest to burnish his brand of authoritarian nationalism.
Mr. Xi was scheduled to deliver a speech marking the centenary of the May 4, 1919, protest against Western colonialism that inflamed Chinese nationalism and helped spread a wave of ideas rejecting Chinese tradition and hierarchy. Mr. Xi told a gathering of senior officials earlier this month that as part of the May 4 anniversary, the Communist Party must guide the youth to “obey the party and follow the party.”
May 4 is one of several politically charged anniversaries that the Communist Party must carefully manage — or muffle — this year. The party has reason to be on guard: The anniversary of May 4 has prompted protests in the past, including pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that soldiers extinguished in a night of carnage on June 3-4 that year.
The party is also grappling with slowing growth that has magnified its fear of popular unrest. Officials have told schools to guard against displays of discontent around May 4 and other “sensitive” dates, according to notices on government websites.
“From the start of the school term, they told us that this is no ordinary year and is very sensitive, so don’t speak out of line,” said Guo Yuhua, an outspoken professor of sociology at Tsinghua University.
The May 4 protests in 1919 broke out after victorious Western powers at postwar peace talks in Paris decided to let Japan keep colonial territory in eastern China that Japan had seized from Germany, ignoring promises of national self-determination.
Many Chinese had hoped that the territory would be returned in recognition of China’s siding with the Allies in the war. Angered by their country’s inability to stand up to Western governments, students in the Chinese capital marched.
This year, millions of Chinese students are relearning the official lessons of 1919, stripped of any suggestion that they should ever take to the streets. In lectures and displays, they have been told that China will never again be bullied.
“It’s all about keeping a patriotic spirit alive,” Wu Mingke, an accountancy student, said last week while walking with three friends through an exhibition about May 4 in a museum in the former campus of Peking University, where many demonstrators had studied. “When China demanded its territory back after the First World War, the world didn’t listen to us. Now, I think, they have to listen.”
Mr. Xi was the latest Communist Party leader to retell the May 4 story to fit his agenda. Generations of Chinese students have absorbed textbooks that present the 1919 protests as a prelude to the founding of the Communist Party in 1921 and its unstoppable victory. And leaders since Mao Zedong, a provincial activist in the May 4 era, have used the movement to court or admonish students and intellectuals.
“Even authoritarian states have to have some kind of story they tell the people about why they deserve to rule,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.
The May 4 story of national awakening served Mr. Xi’s promise of a “new era” of confident Chinese power, Professor Wasserstrom added. “You can see why a tightly controlled version of May 4 could serve this kind of new-era rhetoric.”
In 1919, the crowds of banner-waving students wearing traditional gowns tried to present their demands to Western diplomatic missions in Beijing and a few burned down the home of a Chinese politician they blamed for bowing to Japan. The protests spread across China. Officials agreed to free students arrested on May 4 and refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, a symbolic victory for the students, though the territory remained in Japanese hands.
But for other Chinese, the 1919 protests can evoke memories unwelcome to the party.
The May 4 movement erupted after a time of intellectual ferment in China — later called the New Culture Movement — in which students called for “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” or a free society unfettered by tradition, and explored anarchism, feminism, socialism and individualism.
That anti-authority legacy of the May 4 era has offered inspiration for critics of the party. In 1989, the 70th anniversary of the 1919 protests drew hundreds of thousands of students on to the streets during the Tiananmen protests.
This year, universities have promoted benign commemorative activities, like a “May 4 Youth Race” at Peking University. It will pass through the Old Summer Palace, an imperial garden ransacked by British and French troops in 1860, creating ruins that are now a symbol of national grievance.
In recent months, the police have mounted an intense offensive against dozens of Marxist students in Beijing who supported aggrieved workers in southern China, some citing May 4 as an inspiration. Officials have also tried to silence Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who, starting in July, issued a series of essays that made stinging criticisms of the Communist Party. In March, Tsinghua suspended him and put him under investigation.
On Sunday, security police in plain clothes kept watch as Professor Xu gathered with two dozen or so friends and well-wishers to lay flowers at an inscribed stone memorial that commemorates Wang Guowei, a Tsinghua scholar, for his “independent of spirit and freedom of thought.”
May 4 represented a time when Chinese people, especially students and scholars, “awoke” to their right and duty to speak out about the country’s political future, Professor Xu said by text message. “Commemorating May 4 today must still be founded in this ‘awakening,’” he said.
But Lin Xianzhi, a writer in southern China, said that a few weeks ago publishers backed out of reissuing his book, “The Spirit of May 4,” which stresses the iconoclastic side of that time and was last published in 2012.
“Ten years ago I wrote that the spirit of May 4 was dead,” Mr. Lin said. “Today it’s even more dead.”
Part of the reason officials are concerned about students is economic. This year 8.3 million will graduate from Chinese universities and colleges — more than ever. Quite a few are likely to have a hard time finding jobs that meet their expectations.
Still, few students appeared ready to challenge Mr. Xi’s message of loyal unity under the party.
“It’s really shocking to see this history,” said Pang Tianjin, a high school freshman, gesturing at the museum exhibition for the May 4 movement. “The student protesters back then were so brave.”
And how would he be marking the day of the centenary?
“Well, protesting is out of the question,” he said. “You’d get detained right away.”
Orignially published in NYT.