All Quiet on the Campus Front

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.