Argument

The Birth of Chinese Nationalism

Chinese students marched into Tiananmen Square 100 years ago in a movement that is still shaping attitudes in the country today.

Chinese students march with banners reading “Down with the traitors who buy Japanese goods” during demonstrations in Shanghai in 1919.
Chinese students march with banners reading “Down with the traitors who buy Japanese goods” during demonstrations in Shanghai in 1919. Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

In China, May 4 is Youth Day, a holiday established by the Communist Party in 1949 and celebrated on and off ever since. On this day in 1989, more than 100,000 students demonstrated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a key milestone on road to the tragic events of June 4, when Chinese troops opened fire on the civilians amassed there.

This year, China’s president and Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, has called on students to commemorate a very special Youth Day. But it’s not the 30th anniversary of 1989’s pro-democracy protests that he has in mind. Rather, it is the 100th anniversary of May 4, 1919, that he wants to commemorate. On that day a century ago, another group of students rallied in Tiananmen Square—demanding that the world respect the national dignity of China.

In May 1919, the leaders of World War I’s victorious allies were meeting in Paris to determine the shape of the postwar world. Most Westerners know that the resulting Treaty of Versailles profoundly influenced subsequent European history through the foundation of the League of Nations, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and eventually World War II. Some may even know how the peace treaty, the Balfour Declaration, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East. But Westerners are less aware that the Treaty of Versailles also helped set in motion the series of events that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chinese Civil War, and today’s tensions between the United States and China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In 1919, China was one of the 32 victorious allies represented at the Paris Peace Conference. Like the United States, China joined the war late, but it had been providing moral and material support to the Allies from the beginning. China officially declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on Aug. 14, 1917, but by that point several hundred thousand Chinese workers were already boosting the Allied cause in France, the Middle East, and Russia. The best remembered of these are the 94,146 members of the Chinese Labour Corps who served with the British Army, but perhaps twice as many are thought to have served on the eastern front.

China’s major aim in World War I was the return of Qingdao and the surrounding Shandong Peninsula. Germany had occupied the Chinese port city of Qingdao in 1897, negotiating a forced lease on the city and its surroundings that, like the British lease on Hong Kong’s New Territories, was due to run though 1997. But in 1911 and 1912, the Qing dynasty, which had signed those treaties, was overthrown. The new government in Beijing, known as the Beiyang government after the army corps that formed it, negotiated with foreign powers to restore China’s territorial integrity. It sought the restitution of lands given up by the Qing dynasty in the unequal treaties of the 19th century, starting with Qingdao and the Shandong Peninsula.

The problem for China was not that Germany refused to cooperate. It was that Germany’s territory in the Shandong Peninsula had already been taken—by Japan. At the beginning of World War I, the United Kingdom, desperate for Japanese naval support in the Pacific, had offered the country the German naval base at Qingdao in exchange for entering the war on the Allied side. Japanese forces took Qingdao in November 1914.

As it became clear that Japan would not hand over the territory, university students from throughout Beijing marched into Tiananmen Square in protest. The government warned them to disband, but they disobeyed. They set fire to the house of one pro-Japanese government minister and physically assaulted a second. As the government cracked down on the protesters, sympathy strikes broke out all across urban China. The Beiyang government was divided between nationalist and pro-Japan elements, but the protests led to the dismissal of three pro-Japanese officials and the resignation of the entire cabinet. In the end, 31 countries and territories signed the Treaty of Versailles. China did not.


The May 4, 1919, protests were the first large-scale student demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Then as now, Beijing’s universities were run on a Western model. Many of them had started as missionary schools. Peking University, for example, traces its origins to the old Imperial University, which was established in 1898 to bring Western knowledge to the capital. Tsinghua University was founded by a grant from the U.S. government, which redirected a portion of the indemnity paid by China for the destruction of American property in the Boxer Rebellion to the endowment of the school. The nerve center of the protests was the now-defunct Yenching University, which was formed from the consolidation of four American missionary schools.

The Western-educated students who poured into Tiananmen Square in 1919 were taught that empires were a relic of the pre-modern past and nation-states were the way of the future.

These schools represented something new and foreign to China’s established ruling class. The Beiyang government’s generals, warlords, and factional leaders had grown in up a multiethnic empire—most of the territory the Qing Dynasty had ruled (or at least claimed) was populated by non-Chinese people—but the Western-educated students who poured into Tiananmen Square in 1919 were educated in a different political culture. They were taught that empires were a relic of the pre-modern past and nation-states were the way of the future. Witnessing the collapse of the multi-ethnic Russian, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian empires in World War I, they were eager to build a powerful Chinese nation-state. And looking across the sea to Japan, they saw a new one rising to global prominence. They were especially concerned that a rising Japan would gobble up China itself.

And so the May 4 protests began, inspiring a surge of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. That led to a nationwide boycott of imported Japanese goods and scattered anti-Japanese violence. The ensuing May Fourth Movement centered on rising Chinese—specifically Han Chinese—nationalism. It flowed into but was distinct from the more intellectual New Culture Movement of the same period, which focused on the overthrow of Confucian traditions and the transition to modernity. The enlightenment values of the New Culture Movement were not incompatible with the rising nationalism of the May Fourth Movement, but Chinese nationalism didn’t require the overthrow of Confucian tradition. It would eventually require the overthrow of the Beiyang government, though. And it almost certainly meant war with Japan as well.

In the 20 years between 1919 and the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Japan steadily encroached on Chinese territory. The Beiyang government, which had tried to balance conflicting demands from Japan, the Soviet Union, and the West, was unable to hold back the rising tide of Chinese nationalism. Some of the leaders of the May 4 demonstrations went on to participate in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Others joined Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Both the CCP and the KMT opposed the cosmopolitan Beiyang government, espousing alternative but nonetheless related ideologies of national liberation and renewal. The KMT ultimately defeated the Beiyang government on the battlefield and established a new national government for China in 1928.

The new Nationalist government faced Japanese aggression almost immediately: in northeast China’s Manchuria, in northern China’s Hebei province, and in Shanghai. In 1937, Japan invaded China outright, kicking off World War II in Asia more than two years before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Although it is often forgotten now, the United States was then deeply involved in Asia. Responding to Japanese aggression against the United States’ ally, China, Washington placed restrictions on exports of aviation fuel, aircraft parts, and other war materiel to Japan. At first voluntary, these sanctions became ever tighter between 1938 and 1940. On July 26, 1941, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration froze all Japanese assets in the United States. In other words, Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was a direct consequence of U.S. support for an independent China.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the CCP renewed its civil war against the KMT government. The CCP pilloried the KMT as the tool of foreign imperialists, claiming the nationalist heritage of the May Fourth Movement. Although the Soviet Union cloaked itself in the mantle of communist internationalism, Mao Zedong unabashedly adopted the rhetoric of national liberation. After proclaiming the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, the CCP set about the ordinary business of administering the country, and when it promulgated its first list of public holidays, May 4 was designated as Youth Day.


The CCP continues to portray itself as both a communist party and a nationalist party. Unlike the Soviet Union, which made a charade of maintaining nominally independent communist parties in each of its 15 constituent republics, there has only ever been one Chinese Communist. When those fake Soviet republics became real countries in 1991, the CCP doubled down on its vision of China as one nation. The Chinese government encourages Han Chinese migration to the majority-Muslim provinces of Western China. It spends enormous sums of money to integrate remote Tibet into nationwide transportation networks. It tries to stamp out Cantonese and other regional dialects in favor of Mandarin. And it uses its blanket control over all forms of news and entertainment media to promote Chinese nationalism.

Echoing 1919, the government still regularly whips up Chinese nationalist sentiments over Japan’s possession of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China). China has also revived historical claims to the reefs and rocks of the South China Sea, framing its military buildup there in the revanchist rhetoric of restoring the territorial integrity of China.

May 4 nationalism, in other words, is still very much alive. This May 4, Xi will be giving a special Youth Day speech in Beijing. He will surely be hoping that his audience thinks back to the 100th anniversary of 1919, not the 30th anniversary of 1989. Xi may be playing with fire in promoting the memory of student protests in Tiananmen Square, but as the CCP increasingly divorces itself from its communist roots, the nationalism of the May Fourth Movement may be all it has to fall back on.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and an associate professor at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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