Xi Jinping praises a historic student protest. It could never happen today

President Xi Jinping (center) ahead of a speech marking the 100th anniversary of May 4th Movement at Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Beijing (CNN)In a country whose leadership has little tolerance for open dissent, it is rare to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping praise a student protest against the government.

Speaking in Beijing on the 100th anniversary of the May 4 student movement, a critical moment in Chinese history, Xi hailed it as a "great patriotic revolutionary movement."
He called on the nation's young people to embrace the "May 4 movement spirit," and love their motherland.
    But the ruling Communist Party's praise and professed reverence for the May 4 protests contrasts sharply with its attitude to other modern Chinese student protest movements.
    A growing climate of political censorship and suppression has pervaded university campuses in the country in recent years. Even being an avowed Marxist can't save you -- several high-profile left-wing student activists have disappeared since June 2018 after campaigning for workers' rights.
    Despite Xi's latest remarks, few on campus seem to believe that the spirit of May 4 guides Chinese youth today.
    "In the May 4 era, the students' behavior resonated with the whole country," said Peking University graduate Yang Tinghan.
    "But today, not even Peking University students stand by (their activist classmates) -- so how can society be changed in this way?"
    Students of Peking University marching with banners during the May Fourth demonstrations in 1919.

    Democracy protests in Beijing

    Like his predecessors, Xi has been eager to link the May 4 Movement to the birth of the Chinese Communist Party.
    On May 4, 1919, student demonstrators took to the streets in huge numbers to protest the outcome of the post-World War I peace conference in Paris, which they viewed as a humiliation for China.
    Even though China was on the winning side, the Western powers decided to hand sovereignty of the city of Qingdao from a defeated Germany to Japan, which had conquered the port during the war.
    As thousands of students marched towards Tiananmen Gate, Japanese goods and books were piled up and burned on the streets. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai.
    In his speech on Tuesday, Xi declared that "the May 4 Movement promoted the spread of Marxism in China, helped Marxism and the Chinese workers' movement unite."
    But this is only part of the story. Students' outrage in 1919 was also directed against their own government which had failed to protect the nation's interests. For many intellectuals, especially those from the prestigious Peking University, the loss of Qingdao was a sign that China was in dire need of political reform.
    "The May 4 intellectuals were very patriotic and bemoaning the fact China was being called 'the sick man of Asia' at the time," said David Moser, author of A Billion Voices, a book about the May 4 movement's cultural impact. "They wanted to import Western ideologies in order to save China."
    The dean of Peking University at the time, Chen Duxiu, coined two catchphrases to summarize the student demands: "Mr. Democracy" and "Mr. Science." Chen wrote in his magazine New Youth in 1919: "Only these two 'gentlemen' can save China from the political, moral, academic and intellectual darkness in which it finds itself."
    Chen would go on to help found the Communist Party -- only to be discredited and expelled in 1929 for his support for democratic institutions such as a free press. In his speech, Xi mentioned democracy and science as main components of the May 4 movement but not Chen or any calls for reform.
    "The Party claims to have developed its own form of 'democracy,' which involves having a government that listens to and acts on behalf of the people but does not have open elections," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor at University of California Irvine.
    Tsinghua University students take selfies after the conference for the 100th anniversary of May 4th Movement at Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

    Forgotten anniversary

    The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to obscure the true legacies of the May 4 movement, especially since the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989.
    "The references and parallels made by the Tiananmen student protesters to the May 4 Movement were very explicit," said Moser, who was living on campus at Peking University at the time.
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