Paramilitary police officers march in Tiananmen Square on April 30 after attending a ceremony marking the centennial of the May Fourth Movement, a landmark student protest against colonialism and imperialism. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Long before June 4, 1989, there was another huge student protest in Tiananmen Square. China’s May Fourth Movement unfolded exactly 100 years ago, sparked by the refusal of delegates at the Paris Peace Conference to return former German colonies in China to Chinese sovereignty at the conclusion of World War I.

The students protested not only Western imperialism but their own government’s weakness. Today, the Chinese government celebrates the anniversary of this “great patriotic revolutionary movement” — in sharp contrast to Beijing’s silence on the Tiananmen events in 1989.

Here’s how the May Fourth Movement unfolded, and why it matters for China’s leadership a century later.

1. Chinese reformers have long grappled with using the West as a model for modernization

Since the Opium Wars of the 19th century, Chinese had looked for ways to respond to Western power. The Qing Dynasty embarked on a “self-strengthening movement” to reform itself, looking to European and American models of industry, politics, technology and education.

Moderate reformers advocated a “ti-yong” approach — “Chinese essence; Western application” — to keep China’s politics and culture intact while adopting Western military and industrial technology. Others in China sought more extensive reforms that would fundamentally change Chinese institutions and society using Western models.

As the 19th century turned to the 20th, self-strengtheners had few successes to show. China had lost a war with France in the 1880s and a war with Japan in the 1890s. Conservatives at court scuttled an ambitious reform program in 1898. In 1900, Western armies forced the ruling Qing dynasty from its capital, as they lifted a siege of their embassies by xenophobic “Boxers.”

All this undermined advocates of more modest reform. In 1911, a republican revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty and cast China’s lot with Western ideals and the “family of nations.”

The republic was key to China’s adoption of Enlightenment principles, and with it the idea that China would now partake in the progress that these principles promised. Science and Democracy — personified as “Mr. Sai (Science) and Mr. De (Democracy)” — emerged as essential aspects of a New Culture Movement that would challenge China’s traditional culture and replace it with something new, modern and Western.

2. World War I changed Chinese attitudes toward the West

The Great War gave China another chance to make good its Western-style political ambitions and confirm its status in the family of nations. Chinese troops did not fight, but the Republic sent more than a 100,000 men to Europe to work as laborers in support of the Allied war effort.

Between 1914 and 1919, however, attitudes toward Western-style democracy changed.

The war itself destroyed illusions about the Enlightenment and its promises of unlimited progress thanks to science and democracy. The Great War turned that on its head: Science led to mustard gas; democracies raced enthusiastically to their destruction. China could see European colonies, promised a better future, drawn into the fight, contributing their blood and treasure to the conflict. Was this the “modern civilization” China aspired to?

When the war ended, Chinese delegates hoped to be rewarded for China’s participation. They asked for an end to extraterritoriality — the legal principle that enabled European and American citizens to live in China subject to their own laws — and for the return of the former German colonies.

Instead, the Versailles conference ignored the Chinese delegates. Extraterritoriality remained in place until 1943. And the former German colonies? They were given to Japan.

When this news reached China, students, especially, were outraged at this betrayal. The “modern, Western civilization” to which many had aspired seemed a dangerous illusion. Enlightenment values were not a way out of violence and imperialism, but more of the same.

On May 4, 1919, students poured into the public spaces of Beijing and other cities, directing their rage against not only the Western powers and Japan, but against their own government, which had proven ineffective in resisting Western imperialism.

3. Aspects of the May Fourth story may worry the Chinese Communist Party

In the months and years after May 4, 1919, Chinese reformers looked for new models — not traditionally Chinese, but not part of the Western status quo either. Out of this search emerged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), formed in 1921. And 28 years later, on Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, who was in the room in Shanghai when the CCP was founded, stood atop Tiananmen, overlooking the site of the 1919 protests, and proclaimed the newly established People’s Republic of China.

Today, the CCP rules China and celebrates the May Fourth protesters as patriots, but aspects of this history may worry the party leadership. The students of 1919 were part of a long tradition of university protest, speaking truth to power.

As the centennial of May Fourth approached, the CCP has shown little tolerance for criticism. In March, Tsinghua University — whose students had marched in 1919 — suspended Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who had published essays critical of President and Party Secretary Xi Jinping.

At the turn of the 21st century, as at the turn of the 20th, China’s leaders sought to take part in an international system of Western design, with aspirations to improve their country. “Reform and Opening,” the program Deng Xiaoping launched 40 years ago, is in many ways a reimagining of “Chinese essence; Western application” to mean economic growth without political reform. Drawing that line can be difficult, and failure can have high consequences.

Rapid economic growth has destabilized Chinese society, and slower economic growth now raises new concerns. The May Fourth demonstrators did not overthrow their government, but they were part of a revolutionary movement that questioned their government’s stewardship over China’s entry into a globalizing world. This is part of the reason the May Fourth Movement is today enshrined on the Monument to the People’s Heroes, in the center of Tiananmen Square.

Fast forward 100 years and many Chinese are asking the same question as China makes claims to leadership on a global stage. Are the seeds of the CCP’s demise present in China today?

James Carter (@jayjamescarter) is chair of the History Department and director of the Asian Studies Program at Saint Joseph’s University. He is completing a book on horse racing and the end of European colonialism in Shanghai.