The anniversary of June 4 will be closely observed by China watchers from around the world while it won’t be observed at all in China. But an event that's had far more lasting impact on modern China took place 90 years ago today, and it is this anniversary that should not escape unnoticed.
On May 4, 1919, thousands of university students gathered in Peking in an angry protest over China’s treatment in the Versailles Conference following the aftermath of World War I. If Weimar Germany got the shaft, then China was handed the short end of the stick.
Despite being on the winning side of the war, China, which sent 140,000 laborers to the western front digging ditches, ferrying ambulances and performing otherwise dangerous and menial tasks, got none of the victors’ spoils. Worse, it was betrayed by its western "allies" in every way. Not only did China not regain its sovereign soil held by the British and French, it watched helplessly as Japan took possession of the former German concessions.
The humiliation at Versailles illustrated the utter impotence of China’s nascent republic. But at this moment, when the "new" China hit the nadir in terms of international prestige, a fervent Chinese nationalism was born. And in many ways, this brand of Chinese nationalism is still ongoing.
The May Fourth Movement is commonly thought to be the catalyst, or birthplace, of the Chinese Communist Party. While it's true that a good number of the May Fourth intellectuals eventually came under communist influence, the CCP likely would've risen to prominence anyway, especially with the emergence of the new-born Soviet Union. But the real achievement of the movement was that it galvanized China to truly become a modern-day nation.
During centuries of imperial rule, the idea of "China" as one nation only existed in the minds of those at the highest levels of power. Because of China's isolation, it never really needed to contend with powerful foreign entities, save for the "barbarians" who lived outside of the Great Wall. But even when the barbarians conquered China, as the Mongols did in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 17th, they were quickly engulfed by the superior Chinese culture.
It wasn't until the 19th century when China had to deal with a truly foreign menace. First, it was the British. Then the French, Russians, Germans, and worst of all, the Japanese. A sense of nationhood initially was stoked during the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, but they were put down with the help of foreigners. The Qing Dynasty was finally overthrown in 1911, but the Republic of China, during its infancy, was more an idea than reality as the country was divvied up amongst various warlords and republican factions.
World War I was thought to be China's maiden voyage onto the international stage. But for all their efforts, the Chinese were rudely reminded of their inconsequence at the Versailles Conference. For the young generation of Chinese intellectuals who were educated in western-style liberalism, Versailles represented a devastating betrayal. For the first time, they understood that power politics trumps any lofty ideals. And with them leading the way, the movement built momentum throughout China that created a coherence and unity among the ordinary Chinese.
The Chinese were angry at their own weakness. They were angry at their own government and the foreign powers, especially Japan. The Chinese representatives in Versailles, in a symbolic gesture, refused to sign the final peace treaty. (China in fact signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921.)
Fast forward to today. Ninety years later, Chinese nationalism is alive and well, and now with plenty of teeth. Backed by the world's third-largest economy and perhaps the second most powerful military, China is no longer the sick man of Asia. But nationalism is like a powder keg. For the CCP, management of this nationalism is a very delicate issue.
In recent years, the CCP has sought to use Chinese nationalism to deflect attention away from its continued one-party dictatorship. For the most part, it has achieved the desired effect. In crisis after crisis, whether it's on the question of Tibet or confrontations with the United States, the CCP counted on the application of nationalism to turn its own misdeeds into grievances.
But the days of the CCP playing the nationalism card so deftly may be numbered. China is the only country among the top 20 world producers that does not allow free elections (Russia might be another one, but we digress). Its superpower-in-waiting status is unquestioned. Sooner or later, the Chinese citizenry will figure out that to cure whatever ails China nowadays, they'd better start to look from within.
That's why the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement - known as "Youth Day" in China - will only get a glancing acknowledgment from the country's leadership . At its very heart, May Fourth represented an awakening. It was a revolt, and it was anti-government. The CCP wants none of that.