Monday, 4 May 2009

Mission Unaccomplished

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the 4 May Movement. Fewer in Hong Kong remember this than 4 June, which has become the collective memory of political participation of a generation.

Like many other turning points or important milestones in history, 4 May Movement is not remembered in Hong Kong not just because it is getting more remote from our daily lives. It is also, even more importantly, because few people here recognise the significance of the 4 May Movement.

For students, it is little more than one of the event tags to be memorised in the history curriculum that is no different from a laundry list. For others, it has nothing to do with their daily activities.

But this is not true. The demonstrations on 4 May 1919 actually represented a new chapter in Chinese culture and history that helps define our way of life and thoughts today.

Politically, the demonstrations against the Treaty of Versailles, under which Germany's interest in Shandong province were transferred to Japanese hands, meant much more than an anti-imperialism expression. It paved the way to the rise of communism in China. Movement leaders like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao later became the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

Culturally, the classical text that has been used for more than two millennia began to be replaced by "plain text" - the simple and colloquial text that is little different from day-to-day speech. This vigorous promotion of plain text was actually one of the manifestos of a strong temptation to cut China's cultural roots. Chinese characters and the classical text were blamed for low literacy of the Chinese population. Western thoughts were believed to be more superior to Confucianism (whether Confucianism perceived at that time truly reflects the original preaching of Confucius is another matter). Some radicals even called for total Westernisation and romanisation of Chinese language.

It was under these circumstances that the slogans of Science and Democracy were touted as a means to strengthen China, with the ultimate goal of transforming this ancient civilisation into a modern and independent power that can defend itself from imperialistic advances.

Compared with 90 years ago, China has now developed into a much stronger state than it was in terms of political influence and economic impact. However, Democracy and Science remains an unaccomplished mission. Forget the political implications. What I am more concerned is a fundamental shift of paradigm in terms of people's attitude, approach and mentality. If Democracy can be defined as the respect for individuals, their lives and rights to be human beings; Science as the respect for fact and impartiality, I hope it would not take another 90 years or more to make more noticeable progress towards these goals.


  1. Samson12:29 pm

    How difficult to change the culture of a society, you may say. After 93 years since the May 4th Movement, the Chinese society remains fundamentally a feudal system in spite of all the economical achievements.

  2. Well, I would not say China is still feudal because it is not. I'd rather say China's development over the past century or so is surely remarkable in economic terms, but awfully disappointing in cultural and social aspects.


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