It was, instead, the anniversary of a lesser known student protest that took place in the same square decades earlier: when students demonstrated on May 4, 1919, against a plan to give Germany’s concessions in China to Japan.
Xi used Saturday’s commemoration, and the specter of the much more sensitive anniversary in June, to exhort China’s young people to rally around the Communist Party of China and lead a patriotic life focused on the collective.
“Chinese youth in the new era shall love their great motherland,” Xi told the 3,500-odd young people gathered in the Great Hall of the People, including students dressed in brightly colored jackets from Beijing’s four most prestigious universities — the same universities that were involved in the 1989 protests.
“For Chinese youth in the new era, patriotism is the foundation for success,” Xi said. “Let the great banner of patriotism fly high in their hearts!”
Communist Party organizations at universities and workplaces around the country posted photos on social media of 20-somethings watching the speech live.
Although the Communist Party did not exist in 1919, the president is using the centenary to co-opt what he called a “great patriotic revolutionary movement” in an effort to instill a deep sense of nationalism in the Chinese populace.
The next few months are extremely sensitive ones for the Communist Party of China, with the May 4 anniversary this weekend and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June. That crackdown led to the deaths of thousands of people in the square and across the country.
This Saturday marks 100 years since students flocked to the streets of Beijing after they learned that the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles had passed the city of Qingdao from Germany to Japan. The students considered the agreement to be a national humiliation and blamed traditional Confucian values for China’s weakness in the world.
“The May 4th protests sparked a national movement of questioning why was China so weak,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “The young people were very frustrated with their political leaders, so the May 4th movement is really important in the consciousness because it led to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The student protesters of 1919 promoted Western ideals of science and democracy, and their movement was later credited with bringing about the successful reorganization of the Nationalist Party and the creation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
“The great historical significance of the May 4th Movement shows that student campaigns can be promising only when they are integrated into a story of national rejuvenation and when they receive the correct guidance,” Zheng Shiqu, professor of history at Beijing Normal University, wrote in a commentary in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
But the democratic ideals of 1919 seem very at odds with today’s China, where Xi has abolished term limits, giving him the ability to remain president for the rest of his life.
“The May 4th movement was quite an ambiguous movement, so it allows them to tick lots of boxes,” said Isabella Jackson, assistant professor in Chinese history at Trinity College Dublin, noting that on one hand it was anti-imperialist and nationalistic.
“The people were also calling for a form of democracy, not necessarily on the Western model but something with much more consultation with the public,” Jackson said, adding that the movement was founded on anger toward the ministers of the day. “That kind of dissent against the government is obviously not possible now. So they’re just cherry picking the aspects of the movement that suit their own purposes.”
Certainly, the authorities are going to great lengths to make sure the youth of today don’t harbor any new ideas about protesting.
The government suddenly announced an additional three-day holiday after May Day, giving Chinese workers four days off in a row. The Beijing subway authority said trains will not stop at the stations on either side of Tiananmen Square from Wednesday through Saturday.
A song called “The Path of Man,” which describes the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, has disappeared from Apple Music’s service in China and from the Chinese streaming service QQ Music.
Authorities at universities across the country are on high alert. Handan University in Hebei province told department heads to “maintain a high degree of vigilance, be duty-bound, and never relax.”
“In the speech, President Xi said we are living in the best of times. But why would the government fear unarmed college students in such a golden age?” said a 20-year-old Peking University student and former Marxist club member, speaking on the condition of anonymity for her safety. “This is pure irony and a huge slap in the face of those who believed in the May 4th movement and the party state itself.”
Outspoken academics have also been forced to be quiet. Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University who had very publicly criticized Xi’s decision to scrap limits on his presidency, was suspended from his position and has now reportedly been banned from leaving the country.
In his attempts to strengthen the party and his leadership of it, Xi has been harking back to the founding values of the party: service to the party, not the people, said Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College London. “He uses this nationalist message to refill the fuel tanks and give the party more energy,” he said.
Wang Yuan and Lyric Li contributed reporting.