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Chinese students protest the Treaty of Versailles (the May Fourth Incident), 1919
Post-WWI China was fraught with political turbulence and social unrest. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and the Republic of China was instated in its place, ending thousands of years of imperial rule in the country and generating a host of new streams of intellectual and political thought. However, warlords still ruled strong throughout many of the provinces, fueling a chaotic and backwards politics that an emerging intelligentsia sought to change. Relations with Japan were an important part of this political landscape; in January 1915, Japan presented a list of demands to Chinese President Yuan Shih-k’ai, known as the “Twenty-one Demands,” seeking to assert and expand Japanese control over various regions of China that the country had interest in. Among these regions was Shantung Province, a stipulation that garnered much opposition within China, and that would go on to be included in the May Fourth campaign’s objectives.
Perhaps largely in response to the expansionist aims of Japan within China, a spirit of national unity pervaded the Chinese public. Much of the rhetoric of this period was directly nationalistic and called for the unity of the country, the repossession of the control of the people over the splintered political rule of the warlords, and the adoption of nationalist symbols, in efforts to assert a coherent Chinese national identity. The national-political agenda was coupled with an overwhelming expansion of academic changes, as a flood of Western ideals interacted with Chinese cultural identity. Within this context, Chinese students rose as harbingers of the changing intellectual current. Inspired by Western enlightenment ideals and the vibrant cultural, political, and literary developments unfolding in Europe at the time, these students became the “New Intellectuals,” with a zeal for reformation and restructuring of the old status quo.
Their ferment began to circulate with the student and intellectual revolutionary publications of the time; New Youth magazine was one of the first and most instrumental of these, started in 1915 by veteran revolutionary Ch’en Tu-hsiu. An important actor in the former revolutionary period, Tu-hsiu was an intellectual and reformer who had fled to Japan after a failed 1913 coup. His publication offered an outlet and a mouthpiece for reformist ideals, and also illustrates the inspiration that students found in the older generations of Chinese revolutionaries. From the outset, the May Fourth campaign had a cross-boundary approach to its activism, bringing together different generations and social classes under the umbrella goal of working towards a new China.
In the years leading up to the 1919 campaign, students began to publish and circulate magazines and newspapers out of their various schools and universities; titles like Save-the-Nation Daily, The Citizens’ Magazine, and New Tide are examples of these. From there, student organizations and societies began to form, often as corollaries to the publications (for example, the New Tide Society). These groups were outlets for activism, and venues for students to meet like-minded people and share ideas. Eventually, these organizations would provide the infrastructure for the May Fourth demonstrations and strike activities.
The Versailles Peace Conference began on January 18, 1919. Chief delegate and Foreign Minister Lu Cheng-hsiang, who had signed one of the treaties resulting from the Twenty-one Demands, headed the Chinese delegation. Students and others opposed to Japanese expansionist policies saw him as a worrisome addition to the delegation given that Chinese territoriality was being called into question at the peace talks with the Shantung Province issue. However, public opinion in general seemed to be in accord with the peace talks. Then, in late April, word came that control of Shantung, formerly held by Germany, would be accorded to Japan and not China. Going directly against the sentiment of national unity, this development acted as a catalyst for the student organizations that firmly opposed the move.
The original plan of the student groups that initiated the campaign (including the New Tide Society, the Common Voice Society, the Citizens Magazine Society, the Work-and-Study Society, and the Cooperative Study Society), upon unfavorably observing the progress of the Chinese delegation at the Paris Conference, was to hold a demonstration on May 7th. This was the fourth anniversary of the Twenty-one Demands (the date was known as National Humiliation Day). However, with the news from the conference about Shantung, the organizations convened and decided to hold a public demonstration immediately. On May 4th, student representatives from the various organizations met at the Peking College of Law and Political Science (Beijing) to engage in talks about how to structure and set up the demonstration. They came up with five resolutions: that telegrams be sent to all interested and involved organizations (domestically and abroad) asking them to protest the Shantung resolution; to engage in educating the Chinese masses about what was being deliberated at the conference; that a large, mass meeting be convened in Beijing; that a united, centralized organization of all student groups be established for organizational and administrative purposes, and; that the route for the intended May 4th demonstration start at Tiananmen Gate and move through the business area of the city.
By around 1:30 on the afternoon of May 4th, more than 3,000 students had gathered at the starting point, Tiananmen Gate. The students drew from thirteen colleges and universities in the city. Police officers and several representatives from the Ministry of Education met the demonstrators, and advised them not to continue with the protest. The students refused and continued with the demonstration. Concurrent with the march, students published statements and pamphlets outlining the campaign’s goals, often using militant language. Nonviolence was not an explicit part of the campaign, but their tactical choices tended more towards nonviolence. The initial demonstration began peacefully. However, as the students continued to face opposition from police forces and officials, and as the fervor of the crowd increased, the situation escalated. At one point, the protesters stormed the house of one of a pro-Japanese ministry official, where they maintained that a secret meeting was taking place. They ransacked the furniture and set fire to the house. After this incident, police arrested many students and imposed martial law around the area. Police and students also clashed, wounding both officers and students.
From this point, the student demonstrations deescalated to more peaceful protests. Student demonstrations continued around Beijing, and also began to spread to other cities in the other Chinese provinces. The demonstrations generally took the form of marches—the students would often convene at a central government office or public square in their city and proceed from there, moving through prominent business centers and neighborhoods, and ending at a university. The student organizations continued to meet in order to plan and strategize. On May 6th, they formed the Student Union of the Middle Schools and Institutions of Higher Learning in Peking, also known as the Student Union of Peking. The aim of this organization was to promote the welfare of the nation, as well as safeguard students’ rights and oversee the campaigners’ responsibilities. It was China’s first united student organization, and represented a significant step in the campaign. It was also co-ed, representing the undercurrents of feminism and changing gender relationships that were part of the New Intellectuals’ movement more largely.
Other student groups formed around the provinces, and joined in the strike. Thousands of students participated in student general strikes and large protest processions. On May 12th, students held a large protest march in Tientsin, and shortly thereafter formed the Tientsin Student Union. On June 3rd in Shanghai students protested by holding a student strike and assembling in the city center where students made anti-Japan and anti-government policy speeches. Police arrested thousands of students, completely overwhelming the prison facilities so that they had to construct a temporary holding cell in a city administrative building. Overall, students and universities in more than 200 cities, large and small, participated in the activity.
While students held strikes and demonstrations, the Chinese government scrambled to reach a compromise with the protesters. However, it refrained from making any moves that might upset relations with Japan and as such, student groups rejected many of the government’s attempts. A critical point in the campaign was the alliance of workers and merchants with the student strikers. As early in the campaign as May 5th, the Chamber of Commerce in Beijing had expressed it’s support of the students’ goals, and issued calls for a boycott of Japanese goods. Merchants sent letters to the government expressing their support, calling for the release of arrested students, and asking that the government listen to their concerns. The chancellors of several large universities supported the student demands, and were suspended from their posts as a result (many of these were later reinstated after the student strikes were called off). Spurred by mass arrests of students in early June, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce issued press releases and letters to the government expressing solidarity with the students’ actions. On June 5th, Shanghai workers and industrialists, in cooperation with the Student Union of Shanghai, called a general strike. The strike only continued for some three or four days, but managed to effectively shut down an entire city (which had a population of over 1,500,000); the extreme nature of the strike coupled with its rapid spread throughout other provinces, had a huge impact on the Chinese economy.
The government met the activities with various tactics in its efforts to end the protesting. When mass arrests and using repressive violence met with public outcry, government officials attempted to use more implicit tactics. They tried to co-opt some of the student leaders into government positions, hoping to integrate them into the existing institutions and thus diluting the campaign. This never succeeded, however. Government officials engaged in persuasion, as well as attempts to split the student organizations with bribery and threats. But none of these strategies managed to disarm the campaign.
Finally, on June 28th, the date set out for the signing of the Versailles peace treaty, a group of Chinese students, workers, and others gathered around the Lutitia Hotel in Paris, which served as the headquarters for the Chinese delegation to the peace conference, surrounding the delegates in an attempt to keep them from leaving to sign the treaty. China ended up refusing to sign the Peace Treaty with Germany, garnering a major goal of the May Fourth campaign. On July 22nd, the Student Union called an end to all strikes, and the chancellors who had been suspended from their university posts began to return to their jobs.
In the end, the May Fourth campaign did not achieve as many of its goals as it had initially set out to. While China refused to sign the peace treaty, it was a largely symbolic gesture because Japan still retained control of Shantung province. However, the importance of the campaign lies in the groundwork that it laid for future change. In fact, some years later, the Communist Party would draw on the ability for cross-class collaboration of workers, merchants and students as demonstrated in the May Fourth Incident, and strengthened in its aftermath. The May Fourth campaign became part of a larger movement (the May Fourth Movement) that precipitated larger structural social and political change in the country.