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May 4th spirit in Peking University, 90 years on? Think again.

Beida students arrested in the aftermath of the May 4th protests, 1919

Beida students arrested in the aftermath of the May 4th protests, 1919

It being the 90th anniversary of the May 4th uprising, I spent my lunchtime today sitting in the heat on Beida’s (PKU’s nickname) campus, chatting with students to see if they felt May 4th spirit was still alive in Beida today. I arrived just in time to see two men on a ladder unfurl - with distinct lack of pomp and circumstance - a banner reading, in Chinese, ‘Peking University commemorates the May Fourth movement’s 90th anniversary’. Besides them and a dozen lazing security guards, noone seemed to care.

Here are two representative comments from a young guy and girl (respectively) I talked with:

“Nowadays, students want to earn a lot of money, live a better life … gain knowledge to make themselves famous and rich. They’re not concerned too much for their country. Now society’s advantage is in harmony with individual advantage. If they fight for themselves maybe they will also benefit society.”

“Now, on the one hand because of economic development, on the other hand because of control of speech and failure in 1989, college students pay less attention to politics, are more individualistic, and pay more attention to their own career … I think [May Fourth] should be celebrated more publicly, but it is treated with indifference.”

This, remember, is the very campus where the May 4th movement was born (we won’t let technicalities like the fact that the university switched location from downtown Beijing to the far North-West in 1952 bother us, right?). Beida students - even a brief stay here backs up their self-diagnosis above - have changed from the likes which produced the politically outspoken activists of 1919 (as in the picture) and 1989. There is more to lose than ever before from shouting, more to gain from silence. The class of ‘09 will be changing China from within its system, not from outside it with a banner in their hands.

  1. Jun’s avatar

    yeah, I guess you’re right about that. a few more generations and China might, just might make a quiet change