The May Fourth Movement of 1919 came to define one of the most influential time periods in modern Chinese history. Today, a century later, China might find itself in a similar situation.

Rebecca Karl, a professor at New York University, has dedicated her academic career to studying and researching modern Chinese history and Chinese integration into a globalized, capitalist world. She has authored many books and journal articles, including her most recent piece focusing on the May Fourth Movement titled “The Shadow of Democracy.” On Friday, Sept. 6, Karl came to Colorado College to deliver a lecture on this most recent publication.

The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a Chinese student movement that morphed into an anti-imperial, cultural, and political movement. According to Karl, it united many different groups of people around China, more so than any other movement before. It showcased an incredible amount of self organization among the students and other participants, which added to the cultural importance, political importance, and strength of the movement.

During Karl’s lecture, she focused on the importance of self organization and unity displayed throughout the May Fourth Movement and how those traits can and should be utilized in today’s China. Although 21st Century China is vastly different than that of the May Fourth Movement, Karl argued that many similar traits can be seen in government policies and broader Chinese society.

In 1919, the Chinese people, specifically students and the middle-class, were growing more and more frustrated with the increasing global capitalistic presence within China that challenged the country’s autonomy in the international political realm. It was mostly directed at the newly formed government, as it was more focused on suppressing internal dissent than protecting national interests from other global powers.

A century later, China finds itself in almost the same position as it was in during the May Fourth Movement. There are protests against the Chinese government occurring all over the country, with the most well known being the Hong Kong student movements.

Karl is part of a cohort that sees many similarities between China’s positions in 1919 and 2019, but she thinks of the May Fourth Movement as a jumping off point for change in Chinese society. Karl argued during her lecture that protest organizers in China, and everywhere else in the world, should focus on unity among different groups of people, as that was how the May Fourth Movement became so successful. Karl’s analysis has shown that cohesion of multiple groups of people proves to be one of the most important factors in the movement’s success and should be a focus of other movements and campaigns.

For a politically and socially interested campus like CC, Karl’s lecture provided an interesting perspective on how history can be used to create effective and successful social movements as college students.

Though the May Fourth Movement occurred a century ago, CC students can learn some lessons from the unity and self organization used during the movement.

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