On this day May 4, 1919
The May Fourth Movement began in China with large-scale student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Peking against the Paris Peace Conference and Japan’s Twenty-One Demands.
These demonstrations sparked national protests and marked the upsurge of Chinese nationalism, a shift towards political mobilization and away from cultural activities, and a move towards populist base rather than intellectual elites.
The broader use of the term “May Fourth Movement” often refers to the period during 1915-1921 more usually called the New Culture Movement.
On the afternoon of May 4th over 3,000 students of Peking University and other schools gathered together in front of Tiananmen and held a demonstration. The general opinion was that the Chinese government was “spineless”.
They voiced their anger at the Allied betrayal of China and the government’s inability to secure Chinese interests in the conference. A boycott of Japanese products during this period was advocated, which boosted the domestic Chinese industry slightly.
Throughout the streets of China, students packed the streets to protest China’s concession to Japanese demands. During these demonstrations, students also insisted on the resignation of three Chinese officials involved in these proceedings. After burning the residence of one of the three despised officials, student protesters were arrested and severely assaulted.
They shouted out such slogans as “Struggle for the sovereignty externally, get rid of the national traitors at home”, “Do away with the ‘Twenty-One Demands'”, “Don’t sign the Versailles Treaty”.
The next day, students in Beijing as a whole went on strike, and students in other parts of the country responded one after another. From early June, in order to support the students’ struggle, workers and businessmen in Shanghai also went on strike. The center of the movement moved from Beijing to Shanghai. In addition to students, a wide array of different groups also publicly displayed disagreement with the Chinese government.
The lower class was also very angry at the current state of affairs, such as mistreatment of workers and perpetual poverty of small peasants. Chancellors from thirteen of China’s tertiary institutions initiated the rescue of student prisoners. Congregations such as media outlets, citizen societies, and chambers of commerce offered their support for these students.
Merchants further illustrated support for the students by resisting tax payments if China’s government remained obstinate. In Shanghai, these May Fourth events culminated into general strikes by merchants and workers that nearly devastated the entire Chinese economy.
Under intense public outcry, the Beiyang government had to release the arrested students and dismiss Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang and Lu Zongyu from their posts. Also, the Chinese representatives in Paris refused to sign on the peace treaty: the May Fourth Movement won the initial victory. However, this move was more symbolic than anything else. Japan still retained control of the Shandong Peninsula and the islands in the Pacific it had obtained during World War I.
Even though these protests and marches did not manage to achieve all their objectives, the partial success of the movement exhibited the ability of China’s various social classes to successfully collaborate, an ideal that would be admired by both Nationalists and Communists.