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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Lessons from a 100-year-old students' protest

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on December 23, 2019 and can be accessed here.

Of all the things India should learn from China, and teach China in return, the clampdown on freedoms is not one of them. The People’s Daily compared the internet shutdown in Assam and Meghalaya to the one in Xinjiang and said that they are a part of routine operations of nation-states. They are not. Crushing dissent goes against the grain of every democratic principle. 

In China, student protests are a sensitive topic simply because it challenges the stability of the government. Whether it is in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the Hong Kong protest and students protests against sexual harassment in mainland China this year, students have shown themselves to be active and engaged members of society.

We should remember that this year marks the 100th anniversary of possibly the most important student protests in Chinese history: The May Fourth Movement. This was a protest that began at Peking University (referred to Beida to date) and soon gathered over 3000 students from all over Beijing backed by liberal intellectuals. Their aim was to protest against the treatment of China in World War 1 — Chinese people were disappointed that the Treaty of Versailles ignored all of China’s claims and actually awarded Chinese territory in Shandong to Japan. The protests spread to universities and eventually resulted in the Chinese government refusing to sign the treaty. Even though the protests achieved their initial objectives, they spiraled into a political and social movement against traditional, feudal structures. Several of the protest leaders went on to become founders of the Communist Party of China.

Now the May Fourth Movement refers to whole period when the very base of Chinese society was changed. Why did the protests lead to the popularization of modern ideas? Timothy B. Points out that, “ it [the ascendance of new culture ideas] resulted from the Beiyang government’s inability to recognize that nationalist outrage about China’s diplomatic humiliation was broad and deep within Chinese society, and that Beida’s New Culture forces did not manufacture that outrage but instead led it.” 

This is a familiar story not only restricted to China but to governments all over the world. However, the protests have been co-opted by everybody to suit their narratives. In 1989, Xu Jilin noted that every decade, the movement had assumed new significance: in the 1930s, it was used to call for a new national culture; in 1949, it celebrated the inclusion of intellectuals in the worker’s movement; 1959, it was celebrated as part of the Great Leap Forward and by 1979, it was used to call for democracy and science and to underscore Deng Xiaoping’s ideas. Even this year, there were media reportsof the Chinese government grappling with the celebrations of the centennial anniversary.

The legacy of the May 04th Movement means different things for different people at different points in time. Eric Tindall points out that there are definite parallels between the Hong Kong protests and the 1919 protests -- particularly the use of violence by the government. But then, the Indian government has killed, injured and arrested more people in a week than the Chinese government has during six months of protests in Hong Kong. What does it say about Indian democracy that an authoritarian government can exercise more self-restraint? 


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