We gather today online, from a thousand different places, because a pandemic still prohibits us from meeting in person. But through the marvel of the Internet, we have managed to come together as an even bigger group than if there had been no public health emergency. In ways big and small, we are all tapping our ingenuity as Americans, as Chinese, as human beings, to overcome hardship and preserve our communities.
“Big” examples of human ingenuity include harnessing biotechnology and data analytics to develop therapies and vaccines. “Small” examples of ingenuity include family members figuring out how to give each other haircuts when barbershops are closed. My wife, who is speaking on a panel later today, is a highly trained virologist. She is new to her role as the family barber, as you might have guessed by looking at my hair.
This is the second time I’ve had the privilege of addressing an audience at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. Nearly a decade ago I was invited to speak about what I’d learned from service in the Marine Corps and about the relationship between our military and the civilians it defends. Since that day, I’ve never forgotten the warmth and wisdom of the Miller Center’s director, Governor Jerry Baliles, who passed away last October after a life of public service to the Commonwealth of Virginia and to our nation. We give thanks for people like Jerry.
Today, I’ve been invited by Professors Harry Harding and Shirley Lin to share some thoughts about U.S.-China relations. When Professor Lin told me this event would land precisely on the 101st anniversary of the start of China’s historic May Fourth Movement, I knew I had a potent topic for discussing the China of then and now.
On May the fourth, 1919, following the end of World War I, thousands of university students from across Beijing converged on Tiananmen Square to protest China’s unfair treatment at the Paris Peace Conference. Western nations chose to appease Imperial Japan by granting it control of Chinese territory that Germany had previously occupied, including the Shandong Peninsula.
The Chinese students who marched to Tiananmen that day shouted “give us back Shandong!” and “don’t sign the Versailles Treaty!” Police forced the students to disperse. But, as frequently happens when governments close down avenues for peaceful expression, some protesters resorted to violence. In a principled move that acknowledged popular anger, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles later that year.
China would regain control of Shandong three years later with the help of the United States, which brokered an agreement at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. But the movement ignited by those students exactly 101 years ago was about much more than nationalist outrage at “unequal treaties.” The movement galvanized a long-running struggle for the soul of modern China. As John Pomfret wrote in his fine history of U.S.-China relations, the May Fourth Movement aimed for “a wholesale transformation of Chinese politics, society, and culture.” “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” were the mottos of this movement to transport China into modernity. Some called the movement the “Chinese Enlightenment.” Vera Schwarcz wrote an insightful book by that title. In fact, there’s a lot of good scholarship on this subject. At least two eminent historians of modern China are participating in this event today—Oxford’s Rana Mitter and the University of Virginia’s John Israel. I refer you to the experts to explore the history and meaning of the May Fourth Movement.
But I would like to spend a few minutes highlighting a few Chinese heroes that I believe embody the May Fourth spirit, then and now.
Hu Shih is naturally identified as one of the most influential leaders of the May Fourth era. He was already an influential thinker on modernizing China. Hu Shih’s family was from Anhui province. Like Lu Xun and many other leading writers of their generation, Hu Shih traveled overseas to study. After switching his focus at Cornell from agriculture to philosophy, Hu Shih studied at Columbia University under the American educator John Dewey.
Hu Shih would contribute one of the greatest gifts imaginable to the Chinese people: The gift of language. Up until then, China’s written language was “classical,” featuring a grammar and vocabulary largely unchanged for centuries. As many who have studied it can attest, classical Chinese feels about as close to spoken Chinese as Latin does to modern Italian. The inaccessibility of the written language presented a gulf between rulers and the ruled—and that was the point. The written word—literacy itself—was the domain primarily of a small ruling elite and of intellectuals, many of whom aspired to serve as officials. Literacy simply wasn’t for “the masses.”
Hu Shih believed otherwise. In his view, written Chinese—in form and content—should reflect the voices of living Chinese people rather than the documents of dead officials. “Speak in the language of the time in which you live,” he admonished readers. He believed in making literacy commonplace. He played a key role promoting a written language rooted in the vernacular, or baihua—literally “plain speech.” Hu Shih’s promotion of baihua is an idea so obvious in hindsight that it is easy to miss how revolutionary it was at the time. It was also highly controversial.
Gu Hongmin, a Confucian gentleman and Western literature professor at Peking University, ridiculed widespread literacy for China and what it implied. In August 1919 he wrote: “Just fancy what the result would be if ninety percent of [China’s] four hundred million people were to become literate. Imagine only what a fine state of things we would have if here in Peking the coolies, mafoos [stable boys], chauffeurs, barbers, shop boys, hawkers, hunters, loafers, vagabonds, [etc.] all became literate and wanted to take part in politics as well as the University students.”
Such elitist chauvinism was—and some would argue still remains—a headwind impeding the democratic ideals espoused by the May Fourth Movement. Hu Shih, wielding the language he had helped bring to life, skillfully dismantled arguments against broadening the social contract. “The only way to have democracy is to have democracy,” Hu Shih argued. “Government is an art, and as such it needs practice.” Hu Shih didn’t have time elitism.
Still, May Fourth leaders were constantly sapped of energy by accusations, sometimes leveled by government officials or their proxies among the literati, that the movement was slavishly pro-Western, insufficiently Chinese, or even unpatriotic.
The life and contributions of P.C. Chang make a mockery of the notion that the May Fourth ideals weren’t “Chinese” enough. Like his friend Hu Shih, Chang had studied in the United States on a scholarship. Attracted to the theater, he was the first to adapt the Chinese story of Mulan for the stage. He brought Western plays to Nankai University, which his brother helped found. And he organized a tour of the United States by the Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, adapting the music and dance to Western tastes. In China’s philosophy of moral cultivation and rigorous education, Chang saw advantages that could be combined with ideas from the West to form something new.
This culminated in Chang’s crowning achievement: His decisive contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was the document drafted after World War II by an international panel chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Chang, who was by then a veteran diplomat representing China, was a member of the panel. The declaration’s aim was to prevent despotism and war by morally obligating governments to respect fundamental rights. The rights enshrined in the 1948 declaration include life, liberty, and security; the right not to be held in slavery or subjected to torture; the right to freedom of religion; and the right to freedom of thought.
“Marrying Western belief in the primacy of the individual with Chinese concern for the greater good” Chang helped craft a document that would be relevant to all nations, John Pomfret wrote. A declaration on human rights was not simply about the rights of the individual, in Chang’s view. It was also about the individual’s obligations to society.
Chang’s biographer, Hans Ingvar Roth of Stockholm University, highlighted the weight of Chang’s contributions to the Declaration: “Chang stands out as the key figure for all of the attributes now considered significant for this document: its universality, its religious neutrality, and its focus on the fundamental needs and the dignity of individual human beings.”
A few short years after the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations, Chang resigned his post as a Chinese diplomat, having grown dismayed by the lack of democracy in China. In diagnosing the problem, it is easy to imagine P.C. Chang prescribing a closer reading not of ancient Greek philosophy, but of traditional Chinese ideals about virtuous leadership. The cliché that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy was, as both P.C. Chang and Hu Shih knew, the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.
So who embodies the May Fourth spirit in China today? To my mind, the heirs of May Fourth are civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery. And sometimes big acts of bravery. Dr. Li Wenliang was such a person. Dr. Li wasn’t a demagogue in search of a new ideology that might save China. He was an ophthalmologist and a young father who committed a small act of bravery and then a big act of bravery. His small act of bravery, in late December, was to pass along a warning via WeChat to his former medical school classmates that patients afflicted by a dangerous new virus were turning up in Wuhan hospitals. He urged his friends to protect their families.
When his warning circulated more widely than he intended, Dr. Li was upset and anxious—and with good reason. Supervisors at his hospital quickly admonished him for leaking word of the coronavirus cases. Dr. Li was then interrogated by the police, made to sign a “confession,” and threatened with prosecution if he spoke out again. Anyone tempted to believe this was just a case of overzealous local police, take note: China’s central government aired a news story about Dr. Li’s “rumor-mongering.”
Then Dr. Li did a big brave thing. He went public with his experience of being silenced by the police. The whole world paid close attention. By this time, Dr. Li had contracted the disease he’d warned about. His death on February 7 felt like the loss of a relative for people around the world. Dr. Li’s comment to a reporter from his deathbed still rings in our ears: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference.” Dr. Li was using Hu Shih-style “plain speech” to make a practical point.
It takes courage to speak to a reporter—or to work as one—in today’s China. Even finding an investigative reporter in China, foreign or local, is getting hard. Citizen journalists who tried to shed light on the outbreak in Wuhan went missing, including Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua. More foreign reporters were expelled in recent months than the Soviet Union expelled over decades. Dr. Ai Fen, a colleague of Dr. Li Wenliang who also raised the alarm about the outbreak in Wuhan, reportedly can no longer appear in public after she spoke to a reporter.
When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow.
We have seen big acts of moral and physical courage recently by people pursuing the ideals that Hu Shih and P.C. Chang championed a century ago. Some are political insiders; some have devoted their lives to God. Others follow the long tradition of scholars serving as China’s conscience. Many are regular citizens. Xu Zhangrun, Ren Zhiqiang, Xu Zhiyong, Ilham Tohti, Fang Fang, 20 Catholic priests who have refused to subordinate God to the Communist Party, and the millions of Hong Kong citizens who peacefully demonstrated for the rule of law last year. The list goes on.
As the May Fourth Movement today marks the inaugural year of its second century, what will its ultimate legacy be? It is a question only the Chinese people themselves can answer. The May Fourth Movement belongs to them. Will the movement’s democratic aspirations remain unfulfilled for another century? Will its core ideas be deleted or distorted through official censorship and disinformation? Will its champions be slandered as “unpatriotic,” “pro-American,” “subversive”? We know the Communist Party will do its best to make it so. After all, Mao Zedong had limited tolerance even for Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer and one of the minority of May Fourth heroes whose writing wasn’t heavily censored by the Party. In 1957, an official named Luo Jinan asked Chairman Mao: “What if Lu Xun were alive today?” Mao’s reply about the national hero surprised many in the audience: “He could either sit in jail or continue to write or he could remain silent.”
Those with the fortitude to seek and speak the truth in China today may take comfort, however, in something Lu Xun wrote: “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.”
One final thought, from a U.S. perspective: Hu Shih famously preferred solving concrete problems to wallowing in abstract political theory. But let me break his rule against discussing “isms” to ask whether China today would benefit from a little less nationalism and a little more populism. Democratic populism is less about left versus right than top versus bottom. It’s about reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern. When a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard. It has a kinetic energy. It fueled the Brexit vote of 2015 and President Trump’s election in 2016. It moved the founder of your university to pen a declaration of independence in 1776. It is an admonition to the powerful of this country to remember who they’re supposed to work for: America first.
Wasn’t a similar idea beating in the heart of the May Fourth Movement, too? Weren’t Hu Shih’s language reforms a declaration of war against aristocratic pretension? Weren’t they a broadside against the Confucian power structure that enforced conformity over free thought? Wasn’t the goal to achieve citizen-centric government in China, and not replace one regime-centric model with another one? The world will wait for the Chinese people to furnish the answers.