All Quiet on the Campus Front7 min read

Contrasting student action in the 1910s and 80s with silence in the 2010s – Jeffrey Wasserstrom


When news broke that Xi Jinping would not be limited to serving just two terms as President, while some commentators turned to international ruler-for-life comparisons, others looked to China’s past for illuminating parallels and contrasts. As someone who began his career studying student-led activism and remains interested in the subject, I was struck immediately by references to two decades that figure centrally in the history of that topic: the 1910s and the 1980s. The former was the decade of the May 4th movement, which took its name from the date in 1919 when a rowdy student protest took place in the heart of Beijing, triggering a struggle that reached its peak with a general strike that shut down the city of Shanghai. The 1980s witnessed the massive 1989 gatherings in Tiananmen Square that preceded the June 4th massacre.

1919 and 1989 were not, moreover, the only years in the second and second to last decades of the twentieth century when campus activism mattered. The May 4th movement was preceded by and built on the foundation laid during a 1918 protest wave, while the Tiananmen protests also had a dress rehearsal in the 1986-87 struggles, whose biggest marches took place in Shanghai.

How exactly have the 1910s been brought into the discussion of the end of term limits? It has typically been done via references to drawing parallels between Xi Jinping and Yuan Shikai. Yuan was an early leader of the Republic of China, established in 1912, who grew tired of being a mere President and had himself proclaimed a new Emperor. The Yuan-Xi analogy has been common enough that censors have moved to stop all references to the warlord’s name and related terms from circulating on the the Chinese Internet.

The 1980s have been invoked in commentaries in a very different manner. That was a decade, some have stressed, when the Chinese Communist Party made moves to distance itself from the excesses of the Mao era (1949-1976) and signal that the days of rule by a charismatic strongman with a personality cult were over. One such move was to introduce a policy that specified that the President would be given five-year terms and could only serve two terms. Now we have seen a break from this pattern established in the 1980s, as Xi has developed the trappings of a personality cult and has been given the right to rule beyond ten years.

I find the idea of seeing parallels to the 1910s and contrasts with the 1980s interesting, but I am also struck by one way in which this second decade of the current century is proving radically different to both. Namely, in both the 1910s and the 1980s, campuses served as crucial hubs for spirited political debate and fertile grounds for political mobilization. This is no longer the case, as Elizabeth Perry, a leading scholar of Chinese protest, noted in an insightful essay that was written in 2015 but has even more relevance now.

Writing in a Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper, ‘Higher Education and Authoritarian Resilience: The Case of China, Past and Present,’ Perry pointed out how “notably tranquil” China’s university campuses had become. One thing that made this “particularly striking” to her was that China had such a strong tradition of student activism. Another was that, while college students and their professors had remained “conspicuously quiet” since 1989, there had been a “veritable explosion” of unrest involving “virtually all other sectors of post-Tiananmen society.” There had been “labor disputes by urban workers,” “environmental protests by a rising middle class,” and conflicts in villages triggered by land grabs involving corrupt officials – but little political activity in the universities where so many of China’s twentieth-century struggles begun.

It will be worth revisiting Perry’s argument next spring, when the May 4th movement’s centenary and the thirtieth anniversary of the June 4th massacre come and go. The protests of 1919 and 1989 were different in many ways. Only in 1919 was anger at foreign imperialism a factor, for example, and there was just one May 4th movement martyr, while many were killed in Beijing and also Chengdu in 1989. Still, the two struggles had much in common. Each began as a student movement and then grew into a protest wave that involved members of many social groups. Each, by the end, was largely a fight for the right to protest. And participants in both presented themselves as patriots working to shift thier misgoverned country onto a better path.

Perry’s commentary on the quiescence of mainland students in the current era will have added meaning if, as seems almost certain, next year’s June 4th anniversary passes in eerie and controlled silence on mainland campuses – even while it is marked on Hong Kong campuses and in other parts of the world. It will also be fascinating to revisit her arguments at the time of the May 4th centenary. The date is sure to be marked on mainland campuses, but not in a way that challenges the current status quo.

Each anniversary of May 4th has to be acknowledged in China, since the CCP has long considered – and still considers – the protesters of 1919 to be heroes. Since taking national power in 1949, however, the Party has typically commemorated those student heroes of the past by telling the current generation of educated youths that the best way they can show fealty to the May 4th spirit is to study hard and help build a New China, rather than to take the sorts of bold action that the May 4th protesters did. It will be worth listening closely next year for any rumblings that the current generation finds this notion problematic. Tiananmen activists in 1989 staged a key rally on the seventieth anniversary of the May 4th movement, insisting that embracing rather than eschewing militancy was the best way to be true to the spirit of 1919.

I do not expect to see a similar contesting of the official line on May 4th in its centenary year. As Perry details, China’s leaders have proved adept at using a variety of techniques to render mainland campuses – Hong Kong is a very different story – less conductive to protest than they were in the past. There is every reason to think that their combination of ramped-up patriotic education, tight censorship of communication, control of student associations, and provision of students access to consumer goods and travel opportunities will continue to minimize student activism. It is true that early this year, some students went online to engage in #metoo movement actions. The authorities worked quickly, however, to rein in these efforts and sweep the web clean of their traces.

One thing that studying the history of student activism has taught me is to always be prepared for a supposedly apathetic generation of youths to prove their mettle in unexpected ways. I remember being told on Shanghai campuses in 1986 that the current crop of students did not really care about politics. Closer to the present and closer to home, the inspiring protests by high school students in the wake of the recent Florida mass shooting took many analysts by surprise. Still, the fact remains that there is little sign of students and professors expressing outrage over Xi’s moves to expand and extend his power. It is likely that next year’s anniversaries will cause the authorities little trouble, except in that so often exceptional territory of Hong Kong.

In the 1910s – when Yuan Shikai founded his short-lived dynasty and when, after his death in 1916, his warlord successors talked for a time of putting the last Qing emperor back on the throne – students and professors took the lead in raising the alarm about this backwards slide to monarchical ways. Seven decades later – when Deng Xiaoping was moving too slowly in introducing promised reforms, and purged his heir apparent in a manner that some found worrisomely like what Mao had done before him – students and professors once again were at the vanguard of criticizing those in power.

In the late 2010s, however, the boldest calls for checks on Xi Jinpings’s ever-growing power are coming largely from Chinese citizens at venues other than campuses, such as Li Datong, the former editor of a gadfly publication, and businesswoman Wang Ying. Each of them have taken great risks to speak out at a time when they view the country they love as going badly astray. It is easier to hear echoes of the May 4th spirit in their open letters than in anything being done and said at the universities that played pivotal roles in so many of the China’s great struggles in the last century. ∎


This piece also appears on China Policy Institute: Analysis, the online journal of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.
Header image: Chinese students protesting on May 4th 1919, from