04 May 2005

May Fourth in China, 1919 and 2005

In yesterday's New York Times, reporter Joseph Kahn reminds us of possible similarities between China's current anti-Japanese demonstrations and those 86 years ago.
The Communist Party stirs patriotic feelings to underpin its legitimacy at a time when few, even in its own ranks, put much faith in Marxism. Official propaganda and the national education system stress the indignities suffered at the hands of foreign powers from the mid-19th century through World War II. Japan, which China says killed or wounded 35 million Chinese from 1937 through 1945, gets the most attention....

But China has never made nationalism the driving force of its foreign policy. The government mainly emphasizes its desire to have a "peaceful rise" that does not impinge on its neighbors, and the authorities are nervous about disrupting the flow of investment and technology that has powered economic growth.

Moreover, anti-Japan protests have a long and, for the government, a sobering history. A student-led march on May 4, 1919, to protest the decision by World War I Allied powers that allowed Japan to take over Germany's colonial territories in China spawned Chinese resistance against Western colonialism. But the May 4 movement and uprisings in 1931 and 1937 turned against the government.

"My impression is that the well-educated elite in China are genuinely baffled and upset by how long the government has tolerated provocations from Japan," said Wenran Jiang, an expert on China-Japan relations at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "Every anti-Japan movement has sooner or later turned against the government."...

But a senior editor at a party newspaper says the persistence of the anti-Japan campaign and the participation of urban professionals has alarmed the authorities. Officials are accustomed to dealing with unrest among peasants and workers who feel defrauded or disenfranchised by China's economic boom, not among the urban elite, who are its primary beneficiaries.

"The white-collar middle class is supposed to be a pillar of stability," the editor said.
On the other hand, maybe they are now the only ones who have the luxury of fighting about ideology and international status, rather than more material issues.

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