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Foreign Policy

One Hundred Years of China Standing Up

Mar 06, 2019
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

The May 4th Movement occupies an important place in China’s history: a marker of China’s setting the stage for the current Communist Party’s rise to power.


On May 4th 1919, the Chinese people stood up: they had had enough. A movement was born and two years later, in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded, setting in motion a new Long March – the coming of age of the Communist Party, a sunrise of Chinese pride, and the moderation of a new China. The May 4th Movement was nothing short of a national revolution.


The World’s Gain: China’s Loss


To the victors go the spoils.


In 1919, a year after the end of World War I, the victorious powers held a ‘peace conference’ in Paris known as the Treaty of Versailles. From the Chinese perspective, this quickly transformed into an imperialist divide of the spoils of war. The treaty granted Japan – who had invaded China and attempted to make China a colony of Japan – all the special rights previously held by Germany in China’s Shandong Province.


China, attempting to regain its sovereignty, had been deteriorating for decades following the First Opium War (1838-1841). This time, they joined the Allies in World War I, with a clear expectation of having a place at the table post-war. They were sadly mistaken.


As news reached the Chinese people, they united – infuriated – and lit a fuse across the nation. On May 4th 1919, college students and intellectuals who had studied and been influenced by the Russian Revolution gathered in Tiananmen Square, protesting and demanding that the special rights accorded to Germany in Shandong be restored to China. 


These young people, armed with a rudimentary revolutionary road map, had a strong patriotic sense of nationalism and anger to propel them forward. They demanded that the “Twenty-one Demands” concluded between Chinese Warlord Yuan Shikai and Japan be torn up. This slogan burst forth: “Safeguard China’s sovereignty! Punish the traitors!”


The Chinese students took action to boycott Japanese goods, buy only Chinese-made goods, and refused to become “slaves to foreign powers,” reminiscent of today’s “America’s First” policy promoted by President Trump.


The youth rage spread throughout the country and merged with the workers’ movement to form a palpable surge of anger that stood up to the western power imperialists and decades long feudal insults against the Chinese people. By sheer will and a rise of tsunami power, the Chinese people forced China’s reactionary government to dismiss pro-Japanese traitorous officials, free the May 4th students who had been arrested, and demanded the Chinese representative in Paris not sign the peace treaty.


China Stood Up


This success laid the future groundwork for the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese people began to throw off the shackles of imperial oppression and began a revolution to rid themselves of the feudal and colonial oppression they had slaved under for so long. Liberation and a new and better life for the Chinese people was seen just over the horizon.


The students believed they must save China from bullying by other counties because she was poor and backwards in modern science and industry. Their collective goal was to remove the “big mountains of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism that had been crushing China.” They believed that by removing these weights, a new socialist China could emerge, and industry, science, and the Chinese people could flourish.


China Today


Today, Xi Jinping, China’s “President for life,” holds the titles of General Secretary of the Communist Party, President, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is often described as China's “paramount leader”, reinforcing these principles as he modified the Chinese Constitution in 2017 to solidify his power and enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” into the constitution of the Communist Party.


He proclaimed, “The Communist Party of China is the vanguard of the Chinese working class, the Chinese people, and the Chinese nation. It is the leadership core for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and represents the developmental demands of China’s advanced productive forces, the orientation for China’s advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the greatest possible majority of the Chinese people.”


From Black and White to Technicolor 


The changes I have witnessed in China since my first trip there in 1989 are nothing short of remarkable and universally acknowledged. From a backward nation to a nation now helping to define the world’s global future, these changes are like watching a black and white TV suddenly flicker to full Technicolor.


The Chinese are investing in education, infrastructure, and technology – fully embracing the future. They understand that knowledge, innovation, and creativity are the 21st century currency that will propel them forward as individuals, families and a nation, and are investing heavily in them. Its more than 1.4 billion people will never return to an inferior world status.


Going Forward


The West can debate what form of government is the best and purest. Clearly there are significant trade-offs to freedom that few in the West wish to replace with socialism or communism. Chinese citizens work hard and have enjoyed their rise towards prosperity and power since the May 4th movement.

Their current elevation to political and economic power comes from what has been referred to as a “people’s democratic dictatorship”, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and a “socialist market economy” since opening to the world 40 years ago.

Have these “socialist” values crept their way into the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in its very early stages?

The Hill Magazine recently reported, “President Trump hadn't had much success dividing Democrats until he found a word that would provoke very different responses from different members of the party during his State of the Union address: socialism. Trump's warning of creeping socialism in the United States, deftly mentioned after a section of the speech on the unfolding political crisis in Venezuela, created an immediate public split among Democrats that was caught on live television.”

In order to retain its current hold on political power, the goal of the President and Republican Party may be seen in defining and dividing Democratic opponents in negative terms with warnings of non-democratic, creeping socialism among them.

As the Presidential election in America heats up, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there is a “Red around every corner” – once part and parcel of the 20th  Red Scare, language from last century’s, 1950s McCarthyism, which hunted and destroyed thousands of Americans.

The 2020 Presidential election in America is already shaping up to be as pivotal and divisive as China’s May 4th Movement. America is politically divided – perhaps unlike any other time since the Civil War. 

November 3rd, 2020 will be monumental when historians look back at America as the 21st century unfolded.

Where will America be in 100 years?


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