This past week marked the 89th anniversary of the May 4th demonstrations, the defining event of a decade of intellectual vitality and ideological debate as teachers, students, authors and scholars drew on a panoply of ideas to make sense of the world, their nation, and how best to build a strong and vital society.
At the heart of this movement was a true marketplace of ideas. Young intellectuals rushed to read the latest issues of their favorite journals, of which there were hundreds, pages brimming with the back-and-forth of open minds at work.
The question in the hearts of these youthful, educated elite: How to save
Whether one was a follower of John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Herbert Spencer, or Karl Marx (among many others), or an academic focused on using new methodologies to mine China’s past and cultural heritage, or sought elsewhere for a way to unite a nation against the forces arrayed against her, what made the May Fourth era so special was the free expression of ideas, and the willingness of the intellectual elite to listen, discuss, and then accept or reject different viewpoints on the merits of the arguments presented.
It is a legacy of which
And it wasn’t only between the pages. The young people of the May 4th generation organized, demonstrated, boycotted, loved, and lived according to a myriad of competing ideals.
In the PRC, May 4 is celebrated as “Youth Day” and as this important anniversary approached this year (with the added convenience of a May Day holiday), the self-conscious heirs to the May 4th generation organized their own series of demonstrations and boycotts to mixed success.
Like their May 4th predecessors, the young people of
But something is missing: That marketplace of ideas.
Today in China, even with the government tirelessly trying to limit access to alternative perspectives, bookstores and the Internet still abound with news, essays, translations, history, and philosophy, providing young people with an access to information far beyond the wildest dreams of the May 4th students. But the desire to find out more, the craving to challenge assumptions and formulate multiple perspectives on complex issues is woefully absent. The youth of today write more than ever, more than any generation in recent memory, terabytes of opinion available online—but the anger and passion and fire of the May 4th generation are now enlisted in support of a single worldview and a single perspective on a range of issues. A whole generation whose arguments are hard-wired: an authoritarian success story.
The actions of netizen fenqing and “Pro-China” protesters along the Olympic torch route around the world are strikingly antithetical to the spirit of May 4. For too many, it is no longer about expressing one’s own views, supported with the best argument and the most relevant available evidence; it is about using mob psychology, ridicule, intimidation, ad hominem attacks, and a variety of other means to silence those with whom they disagree. And the reasons for their disagreeing are for the most part anti-intellectual: I don't like you, what you say is not what I've heard or learned, and those ideas make me uncomfortable--ergo, you're wrong.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, in the last few weeks we have seen physical violence in
That’s a shame. The CCP was founded by key members of the May 4th movement, including Chen Duxiu, and the Party is proud of this heritage. The May 4th demonstrators make up one of the iconic images on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in