China and the May 4th Movement

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Protesters march against the Treaty of Versailles in Beijing, May 1919 (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“When the May Fourth Movement took place in 1919, I was only sixteen years old, a student at the Tianjin Women’s Normal College”, wrote Deng Yingchao (邓颖超/ 鄧穎超; pinyin: Dèng Yǐngchāo) years after the events. “On May 4, 1919 students in Beijing held a demonstration asking the government to refuse to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty and to punish the traitors at home. In their indignation, they burned the house at Zhaojialou and beat up Lu Zhongxiang, then Chinese envoy to Japan. The following day, when the news reached Tianjin, it aroused the indignation of students there who staged their own demonstration on May 7th. They began by organizing such patriotic societies … We had no political theory to guide us at that time, only our strong patriotic enthusiasm. In addition to the Beijing students’ requests, we demanded, ‘Abrogate the Twenty-One Demands!’ ‘Boycott Japanese Goods!’ and ‘Buy Chinese-made goods!’ Furthermore, we emphatically refused to become slaves to foreign powers!” (quoted in: Patricia Buckley Ebrey: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, p. 360).

The protests of May 1919 marked the beginning of Deng Yingchao’s involvement in politics. Later she joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and married Zhou Enlai. Like Deng Yingchao, thousands of students throughout China, moved by patriotic fervour and the desire to change their country, took part in the demonstrations. The social and political movement that ensued marked the beginning of mass politics in post-revolutionary China.

In the present article, we shall briefly examine the origin and development of the May Fourth Movement, as well as its consequences for China’s political life. Continue reading

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Legalism And Leninism In China’s Constitutional History

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The National People’s Convention met in the Great Hall of National Central University in Nanjing on May 5, 1931. Seven days later the Convention adopted the Provisional Constitution (photo by unknown author, via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and the Republic of China (ROC) was proclaimed, the revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen embarked on an ambitious experiment to modernise the country according to liberal Western ideals of democracy, human rights and division of powers. The new Republican government issued a Provisional Constitution which guaranteed progressive democratic rights, including judicial independence. However, after the first elections held in 1913, general Yuan Shikai unlawfully seized power and suppressed the elected parliamentary majority. Sun Yat-sen and his party, the Guomindang, were forced into underground opposition. When Yuan died in 1916, the central government fell apart, and regional warlords created personal fiefdoms in which they ruled like monarchs.

The 1912 Constitution was inspired by the ideals of the American and French revolutions. But the failure of democracy, the repression suffered at the hands of Yuan Shikai and the warlords, and the threat of foreign imperialism convinced Sun Yat-sen that democracy in China was unattainable as a short-term goal. He observed with keen interest the events of the Russian revolution, and the triumph of the Communists led by Lenin seemed to him an example of a revolutionary party that had succeeded where the Guomindang had failed. Sun asked for Soviet help, and Russian advisers were sent to China to reorganise the Guomindang on the basis of Leninist principles. Continue reading