student movements

student movements
College students have played a highly visible and important role in Chinese politics during the twentieth century. Student activism began in the late Qing period, but it was the May Fourth Movement of 1919 that created the standard by which later student movements would be judged. The two central themes defined the 1919 movement—an ardent nationalism and a quest for social and individual emancipation—have dominated virtually all subsequent student movements. The two themes have not always coexisted comfortably, however, for nationalism tends to engender support for the building up the power of the state, the very entity that students and intellectuals have viewed as an obstacle to the emancipation of individuals or groups within society.
The student movements of the 1980s, which culminated in the massive and widely publicized protests in the spring of 1989, generally focused on the expansion of individual and group rights within a society dominated by the Communist Party. For example, some of the ideals for which students in the 1980s fought included: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, increased political representation, and equality under the law. Not surprisingly, given this set of goals, the student movements of that decade usually came into conflict with the authorities, a point that was underscored, tragically, by the bloody state-led crackdown on 4 June 1989.
The mood and behaviour of Chinese college students has changed significantly since 1989, and might be described as having swung from an emphasis on emancipation to a focus on nationalism in the 1990s. In addition, the most recent generation of Chinese students is far more materialistic, careerist and apolitical than the one that came before it. Nevertheless, students at China’s top universities still tend to be well informed and deeply concerned about political and social issues even if, as a rule, they are less quick to challenge the authority of the state or to blame the Communist Party for all that ails Chinese society. Indeed, today’s students often display strong support for the Communist Party as China’s representative on the world stage, and as such they are generally more critical of those whom they perceive as China’s geopolitical opponents—first and foremost the United States.
As far as the Communist Party is concerned, a nationalistic generation of students is preferable to one focused on liberation. Still, the Chinese government dislikes spontaneous activism of any sort and looks on highly emotional outpourings by students, even if they are fuelled by patriotic sentiment, with great alarm. From the perspective of the Party, it may well be better to act tough on the international stage than to appear weak and risk incurring the wrath of student activists yearning for a strong China of which they can feel proud. The current generation of Chinese students is thus encouraging their government to adopt hard-line stances in international affairs.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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