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On the Road, Interlude 5:

A Squall at the 4 May Memorial

While we were in Beijing on the final stage of our journey, we stayed in the Red Building, next to the former home of Beijing University. The Red Wall Hotel, currently "trying for three-star grading", is next to the Beijing University Museum, and next to that stands a newly erected monument to the 4 May Patriotic Movement.

The 4 May Movement marks the moment at which China embarked on a century of modern history. In 1914, Japan used the pretext of the outbreak of the First World War to declare war on Germany, and occupy Qingdao and the entire length of the Jiao-Ji Railway. Once in control of Shandong, Japan removed from Germany all the privileges which that country had seized in the province. At the close of the war in 1918, Germany was defeated. In January 1919, the victorious nations opened a peace conference in Paris. China, represented by a joint delegation of the Beijing government and the Guangzhou military government, attended on the side of the victors, and put forward a number of proposals. These included abolition of all of the Great Powers' concessions in China, along with abolition of the "21 Demands" unequal treaty concluded between President Yuan Shikai and the Japanese imperialists, and restitution of all powers removed from Germany in Shandong by Japan before the war. But the Great Powers manipulated the Paris Peace Conference in such a way that not only were the Chinese demands rejected, but the peace treaty with Germany proclaimed that the Shandong concessions were to be turned over in their entirety to Japan. The Beijing government was prepared to sign the treaty but the Chinese people were fiercely opposed.

On the afternoon of 4 May 1919, over three thousand students from Beijing University and twelve other universities and training colleges broke through police and army cordons and gathered in Tiananmen Square, to hear speakers. Then they organised demonstrations and shouted slogans such as: "Fight for sovereignty abroad, get rid of national traitors at home", "Abolish the 21 Demands" and "Refuse to sign the peace treaty". They also demanded that the leaders of the pro-Japanese faction – Cao Rulin, Zhang Zongxiang and Lu Zongyu – be punished. The Beijing students went on strike and galvanised the entire country into resistance.

The impact of the patriotic activities of the Beijing students spread rapidly to cities such as Tianjin, Shanghai, Changsha and Guangzhou, and there was support, too, from Chinese students studying abroad and overseas Chinese. Even more students embarked on propaganda activities on 4 June and within two days nearly a thousand students had been arrested. This further aroused popular anger. From 5 June, between sixty and seventy thousand Shanghai workers held a political strike, while workers from cities such as Nanjing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Jinan, Wuhan, Jiujiang and Wuhu held a succession of strikes and demonstrations. The Beijing government was so shaken by this activity that on 6 June it was forced to release all those students who had been arrested. On 10 June, a proclamation "approved" Cao, Zhang and Lu's "resignations". On 28 June the Chinese delegation refused to sign the peace treaty with Germany. The victorious 4 May Patriotic Movement now came to a temporary halt.

The 4 May Movement is seen as marking the end of the old Chinese democratic revolution and the beginning of the new. After the People's Republic of China was established, the Government Administration Council of the Central People's Government proclaimed in December 1949 that henceforth 4 May would be National Youth Day.

All the elderly people we had interviewed were witnesses to the history of China after the 4 May Movement. For this reason, I felt that before completing China Witness, we should record on camera, next to the monument, the feelings about this history evoked for me by these interviews.

However, we were interrupted by two men dressed in light grey uniforms and wearing "security guard" armbands.

*

SECURITY MEN: You're not allowed to film here!

XINRAN: Why?

SECURITY MAN A: Have you got a permit?

XINRAN: What permit? We've come to pay our respects to former generations, and to share the glory of those times . . . surely we don't need a permit?

SECURITY MAN B: Why are you using a video camera?

XINRAN: To record our feelings and what we have found out about the 4 May Movement.

SECURITY MEN: It's not allowed. The rules say that the media can only film if they have permits.

XINRAN: Whose rules?

SECURITY MEN: The park administration. You're on our territory, you have to let us run it.

XINRAN: Your Huangchenggen Park, is it one of the municipal parks open to the public? Does it come under the Beijing Municipal Administration? Is it public property protected by the law of the People's Republic of China? If it is, then why can't Chinese citizens find out about one of our own historical monuments? And can't foreigners film a monument on a main street commemorating Chinese history?

SECURITY MAN A: We're not going to go into all that with you, you've got to show a permit, otherwise we'll call people to come and take you away!

XINRAN: Take us away? Why? Did you know it's breaking the law to arrest innocent people? Who's in charge of you? We'll talk to him, because you don't have the most basic municipal administration rules to back you up. What you're doing is going to be evidence for world opinion that accuses China of having no legal system or human rights. You're damaging our image of democratic freedom. Who's your boss? Get him here, or I'll go and see him!

SECURITY MAN A [pointing to B]: He's phoning the boss now.

XINRAN: Thank you. I think your boss will see I'm right.

SECURITY MAN B: The boss says he's too busy to come.

XINRAN: Then I'll speak to him on the phone. Like you said, if we've contravened your administrative regulations, then that's his job and he has to take care of it. Kindly ring him again and tell him I have an important matter to discuss with him.

*

I sounded so intransigent that Security Man B wasted no time in dialling again: "That woman insists on speaking to you!" he said.

But he did not pass the phone to me – he gave it to A who listened, and listened, and listened. All at once, he went pale. When the call ended, I could see they did not know what to do. Obviously their boss knew something about "media connections" and their fearsomeness, and wanted nothing to do with us. The poor administrators standing before us only knew that their boss was "he who must be obeyed", and they had no way of relinquishing their responsibilities.

At that moment I remembered the saying that "'face' is the lifeline of the Chinese poor". I did not want to make life too difficult for two almost uneducated young people, so I changed my tone:

*

XINRAN: Soon 2008 will be here, and this park is one of the sights of Beijing. There will be more people than ever from China and abroad who want to come and see this monument to modern Chinese history, and nowadays most travellers bring video cameras. If we keep stopping them, then it will make us look ridiculous. Go back and tell your boss to bring your administrative statutes into line with Chinese law. Otherwise the people breaking the law will be you. Your boss can't send you out into the street and wash his hands of you. He has to help you clarify some basic international rights and laws, otherwise you may become the criminals in the development of Chinese civilisation. I'm not joking. If I'd been an overseas Chinese with a foreign passport and didn't understand your sense of responsibility and patriotism, this incident today might have become a huge joke, and made us a laughing stock for foreigners. Fancy needing a news permit to video a historical monument in a Chinese street. You would become proof that there is no freedom of speech in China! [Brief pause.] What exactly are your powers and responsibilities?

SECURITY MEN [in unison]: We don't know.

XINRAN: So what regulations do you follow to enforce public security?

SECURITY MAN A: We've got documents, but I can't quote them to you.

SECURITY MAN B: They're all very old, we haven't got the new ones yet. We can't tell you, but our boss knows.

*

This was a typically Chinese answer: we don't know, our bosses know.

Do these leaders know? If they do but don't get things clear for those under them, are they real leaders? I recalled a friend quoting an old saying and complaining about people who "out of their own ignorance, clarify things for other people". That's terrible, but bamboozling other people when one understands things clearly is even more terrible.

At this point I want to quote the definition of a Chinese person taken from a British encyclopedia of 1842 . . .

A Chinaman is cold, cunning and distrustful; always ready to take advantage of those he has to deal with; extremely covetous and deceitful; quarrelsome, vindictive, but timid and dastardly. A Chinaman in office is a strange compound of insolence and meanness. All ranks and conditions have a total disregard for truth.

How much has this image of "the Chinaman" changed in the last 150 years? I don't know – I can't even tell in my own lifetime.

"I don't know" or "I've no idea" appears to be the usual response to the almost completely opposed life values expressed by our interviewees in explaining who they are, and by the sons and daughters trying to understand them. In fact, almost every Chinese person has been through the "I don't knows" and "I've no ideas" of the last hundred years. Even surviving archives of the great events of Chinese history and Chinese yearbooks differ in the way they present that history. One hundred years filled with too many wars with all the chaos and strife they bring in their wake, together with the failure of our national saviours, dramatic changes in our beliefs and confusion in moral standards, have led to a kind of "inflation and metamorphosis" both in the way Chinese people describe reality to themselves, and in the architecture of Chinese cities. In the search for their roots and for their self-respect as a nation, Chinese people have lost their way. The result is a historical map which lacks an agreed system of explanatory symbols and is forever being reprinted.

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