It’s ironic that the trade talks fell apart near the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. Named after student protests on that day in 1919, the term signifies a wider campaign to change Chinese society.
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“I would much rather see the past culture of our nation disappear than see our race die out now because of its unfitness for living in the modern world,” Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in 1915. Chen (1879-1942) was dean of Peking University in 1916, a leader of the “new culture” movement, and editor of New Youth magazine.
In an excerpt from his 1916 essay “Our Final Awakening”, Chen laments the weakness of China’s national strength and civilisation but cautions those who think that democracy and constitutional government can be easily established in China.
First, he argues, there must be a change in the thought and character of the people such that their attitudes will support constitutional government. Without a new culture, there will be no new political system. (This same argument can be heard in China of the 1990s)
The so-called “May 4th Movement” or “new culture” movement began in China around 1916, following the failure of the 1911 Revolution to establish a republican government, and continued through the 1920s.
Its importance equals if not surpasses the more commonly known political revolutions of the century. The movement articulated the contempt for traditional Chinese culture felt by many Chinese intellectuals.
These intellectuals blamed traditional culture for the dramatic and rapid fall of China into a subordinate international position, and maintained that China’s cultural values prevented China from matching the industrial and military development of Japan and the West. The May 4th Movement takes its name from the massive popular protest that took place in China in May 1919, following the announcement of the terms of the Versailles Treaty that concluded WWI.
According to the treaty, Germany’s territorial rights in China were not returned to the Chinese, as had been expected but were instead turned over to the Japanese. The outpouring of popular outrage coalesced in a new nationalism with repeated cries for a “new culture” that would reinstate China to its former international position. The way out of China’s problems, many believed, was to adopt Western notions of equality and democracy and to abandon the Confucian approach which stressed hierarchy in relationships and obedience. Science and democracy became the code words of the day.
On May 19, 2019, Michael Schuman, who is based in Beijing, and the author of “The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth” and “Confucius and the World He Created” wrote in Bloomberg: “This spirit carried into the 1980s. Under China’s pro-market reforms, the country adopted free enterprise, invited in overseas investment, heeded Western economists and joined institutions such as the World Trade Organisation. No less a figure than Hu Yaobang, the party’s general secretary, suggested that Chinese should eat with knives and forks rather than chopsticks.
But wariness of the West never went away, and as China’s economic might has grown, so has its determination to chart its own course. On the global stage, President Xi Jinping has pushed Chinese alternatives to the Western world system, such as his Belt and Road infrastructure-building program.
At home, Xi has emphasised the role of the state over greater liberalisation, and promoted traditional Chinese culture and philosophy to ward off unwanted ideas such as democracy.
This love-hate attitude is playing out in the trade talks.On one hand, Beijing realises it benefits from being part of the current US-led global order. On the other, Beijing isn’t willing to embrace that order fully and accept its norms.
The Trump administration faces the same frustrations as 18th century British traders. With his tariffs and threats, Trump is effectively saying: “OK, China, if you won’t follow our rules on your own, we’ll just have to force you.”
It may appear unfair that China won’t reciprocate the openness that many in the West hold so dear. Arguably, the Chinese economy would be better off if it did.
That doesn’t mean China will. Trump’s attempt to force its hand will fail, no matter how high he raises tariffs. Washington has to learn to deal with the China it has, rather than the China it would like to see.
Benjamin is a business consultant based in China