This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Thirty years after the bloody suppression of the 1989 democracy movement around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, president Xi Jinping has lauded the spirit of a 100-year-old student-led movement in a bid to boost loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In a keynote speech at a ceremony marking the centenary of the MayFourth Movement at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 30, Xi linked the movement to his theme of “national rejuvenation.”
“The movement gave birth to the great spirit centered on patriotism,progress, democracy and science, with patriotism at the core,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying of the 1919 movement, which wassparked by popular anger at the Treaty of Versailles and the concession of a huge tract of Chinese territory to Japan.
Macau University lecturer Choi Chi U said Xi’s speech, in emphasizingpatriotism, distorted the original intentions of the movement, whichcampaigned to reform China through democracy and science, however.
“The May Fourth movement was definitely patriotic in spirit, but the more important issue for the scholars of Peking University was the question of how China should go forward, using science and democracy,” Choi said.
“There was nothing about obedience to the party and socialism; it wasnever mentioned,” he said. “This is is purely about the Communist Party controlling the May Fourth movement [narrative], and it runs counter to history and deviates from reality.”
Chinese constitutional scholar and historian Zhang Lifan agreed.
“The May Fourth movement came against a background of the campaign fora new kind of culture,” Zhang said. “It was a time of ideological awakening and liberation, based on science and democracy.”
“Now they want to strip that out and replace it with patriotism and the love of the party,” he said. “This is actually a distortion of the spirit of May Fourth.”
“It is also binding patriotism and love of the party together, meaning that if you love your country, you must also love the party and love socialism,” Zhang said. “This is still really all about maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s position of power.”
Xi also called on the Communist Youth League to mobilize the country’syoung people to pursue the “Chinese dream.”
“We should educate and guide young people to view the world properly, to understand the national conditions comprehensively, and to grasp the trend of the era,” he told delegates.
But Guizhou University professor Yang Shaozheng, who was fired outright after he made comments critical of the Communist Party in an online article, said Xi should be encouraging young people to cultivate independent thought, rather than blind obedience to party and state.
“They should be encouraging young people to cultivate critical thinking and judgement,” Yang said.
He added: “Patriotism and love for the party are two different things … and patriotism doesn’t just mean praising the motherland … it also means to uncover the mistakes and issues faced by this country.”
“Finding solutions to these problems is the real kind of patriotism,” Yang said. “Loving the party doesn’t just mean paying tribute to it; it should also mean finding ways to discover its problems and mistakes.”
Xi said the party should listen to young people’s views on social issues, as well as their opinions and advice on the work of the government.
“Even if they express harsh or partial criticism, we should correct our mistakes when we have made any and guard against them when we havenot,” said Xi.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Poon Siu-to said Xi’s nod to thepotential for criticism from young people wasn’t being put into practice on the ground, however.
“Xi Jinping [talked about] harsh or extreme criticism from young people, but the reality is the opposite,” Poon said. “How many young people have been jailed, or at least put in administrative detention, just over few words they posted on the internet?”
“It’s pretty ironic. They are saying one thing and doing another,” he said.
Xi’s ever-widening crackdown
Since he came to power in 2012, Xi has presided over an ever-wideningcrackdown on public expression, particularly on social media platforms, targeting anyone who mocks him personally for particularly harsh punishment.
In April 2017, Shandong activist Wang Jiangfeng was sentenced by theZhaoyuan People’s Court after being found guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
He was accused of referring to the President as “Steamed Bun Xi” in a group message to the social media platforms WeChat and QQ. His defenseattorney Zhu Shengwu was later stripped of his license to practice.
“Steamed Bun Xi” has been a banned phrase on China’s tightly controlled internet since the president ordered the buns during a visit to a Beijing restaurant in December 2013, prompting petitioners to gather outside toting a placard that read “President Xi, I’d like to eat steamed buns too” in a bid to get their grievances against the government heard.
The incident sparked an online meme in which Xi was referred to jokingly as Steamed Bun Xi, in a pun on the name of a legendary Song dynasty official who fought corruption. Censors later banned the meme, deleting social media posts that contained references to it.
The 1989 protests, which took over Tiananmen Square for several weeks,were sparked by a spontaneous outpouring of public mourning followingthe funeral of ousted liberal premier Hu Yaobang on April 22 that year.
The government styled the 1989 student-led democracy protests a”counterrevolutionary rebellion,” and the families of victims and pro-democracy campaigners have since focused their efforts on a re-evaluation of that verdict, as well as demanding compensation and the apportioning of blame and responsibility for the massacre.
Three decades later, public memorials and discussions of the events of June 1989 are still banned in mainland China, with activists who seek to commemorate the bloodshed often detained, with veteran dissidents placed under police surveillance or detention during each anniversary.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.