China with Polish Characteristics

April 28, 2008

Watch out for the May 4 Movement

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 3:15 pm

Ever since the Carrefour protests began on April 19, many people were calling for a complete boycott of French/Western goods on May 1, the traditional socialist Labor Holiday (we still celebrate it in Poland), as an expression of unity against foreign pressure and ridicule. Nobody knows for sure what will happen this Thursday, but the holiday continues until Sunday, May 4, which in my opinion could set off even larger response from the Chinese worldwide. And the reason is history.

On May 4, 1919 some 3000 students from different Beijing universities demonstrated on Tiananmen Square against China’s failure during the Versailles negotiations – in the aftermath of World War I it was decided that the former spheres of German influence in China, namely huge Shandong province, will remain under Japanese control rather than be given back to China. This infuriated many Chinese intellectuals and students, sparking anti-imperialist protests and strong critique of the government. Despite the crackdown, the protest soon spread to Shanghai and forced the resignation of three top diplomats responsible for the Versailles negotiations. It was also the height of the so-called New Culture movement (it started four years earlier in Beijing) emphasizing emancipation, science and new ideas, which now grew radical and gathered momentum. The Chinese Communist Party formed over the next months and held its first meeting in 1921.

The current tension between the Chinese and the international community could be a start of a dialogue – a much needed dialogue ahead of the Olympics when the same issues we face now will become truly explosive and hard to deal with. And given the importance which May 4 Movement played in Chinese history it is rather an auspicious date for something major to happen. While legions of armchair nationalists are grinding their teeth in anticipation, quite a few of people warn against making things radical. In this letter featured on Danwei, Chinese novelist Han Han talks about dangers of excessive patriotism:

In an era of peace, radical patriotism is no different from a fan’s adoration of his idol. But because people don’t choose the object of their patriotic love, it’s bound to be ever crazier. Previously, I thought inciting the masses was just government rhetoric, a pretext, but now I realize that people can be stirred up rashly. Of course, it’s not easy to incite people, but when they are determined to be cannon fodder, it’s easy for them to blow up. Don’t equate the current situation with the May Fourth movement [when patriotic students protested the Versailles treaty in 1919]. The two situations are totally different. Right now what we need is stability. Don’t cause disturbances or stir up trouble, it’s pointless.

And it seems there are sincere efforts at making oneself not simply heard, but also understood. Asia Sentinel features a translation of a very interesting letter published in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis (see my post on Wei Wenhua), discussing the way Chinese in London behaved during April 19 protests:


The most impressive aspect of the 4.19 protest movement is the fact that the overseas Chinese students are exploring and learning to use methods that are acceptable by western standards to express their anger and make their voices heard. In the example of the London protest, students uniformly wore white surgical masks and conducted their protest in silence. They purposely chose the white color as the base color, avoided using too many red flags and chose to sing “My China Heart” as their theme song. From these choices, one can see the organizers’ meticulous thoughts. On the one hand, western society has always been sensitive towards the red color and has a habit of associating it with authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany. So using red would not only fail to earn support but would arouse resentment. On the other hand, silent protest in place of loud slogan chanting would give a better impression on westerners, showing them that Chinese people are capable of exercising reason and control over their emotions and not just a bunch of “brainwashed” nationalists.


Why should a great nation such as China stoop to trying to understand the West? Why doesn’t the West try to understand China? To the former question, I can only say: “If you don’t take the first step, you will never be able to cover a thousand-mile journey.” To the latter, my answer lies in the book which I have been reading and which I would highly recommend: “What Does China Think?” by Mark Leonard. I would also like to share this saying by a Taiwanese friend of mine: “A great nation never regards itself as great.” If people are given ample room to utilize their various lively formats and abundant resources to start an honest, independent and rational dialogue and to learn and exchange ideas with the West, then I think this would be the best outcome that can be expected from the Olympics.”


It’s always good to remember how vast and complicated of a place China is, and to avoid simplifying this country and its people into a single, uniform giant as the media at times tend to do (unfortunately, the commercialism of news reporting always puts it on a brink of the superficial). Whatever will happen during the May Holiday, there is bound to be a range of voices and reactions. Some will be like those Simon Elegant talks about in his Time Magazine article:


The ferocity with which the protesters turn on anybody who disagrees with them reminds some older Chinese of the dark days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which convulsed China from 1966 to ’76. Today’s protesters have one thing in common with Mao’s revolutionaries: years of indoctrination in a highly nationalistic–some would say xenophobic–credo that imagines a hostile and perfidious world determined to undermine China. “Maybe kids today know more about computers, about the Internet,” says Dai Qing, an environmental activist who was imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, “but when it comes to history, the education they get is the same.”


But there are also going to be many others, taking sides, thinking differently and worth listening to. It is not hard to find those working beyond the mainstream picture – just make sure you listen carefully and read between the news lines.

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