Few Americans notice these kinds of things, but this week the Chinese marked—we cannot say celebrated—the 92nd anniversary of the May 4th Movement, the groundswell of democratic agitation that began on that date in 1919. May 4 was also a month and a day since Beijing arrested Ai Weiwei, the celebrated artist and dissident.
These are causes for a pause in our thoughts. When I met Ai at his Beijing studio a couple of years ago, the conversation naturally turned to his country. “If we’re going to talk about China we first have to decide which one,” Ai remarked. Han China was rather small, he explained, Tang China larger, and so on. The China Beijing considers to be China today is but six decades old. Ai’s point was that China is always changing, always something new. And it is as true of the China we see before us as it was of any of the dynastic Chinas that have passed into history.
China is run by authoritarian Communist technocrats, and it will never be any other way: This is the standard line, and May 4th ought to remind us how wrong it is, Ai’s detention notwithstanding.
The movement named for a date was in essence an effort to modernize China by breaking the chains of its long, heavy past while not erasing Chinese identity. It was radically anti–Confucian and just as radically pro-democracy. Its leaders created two symbolic figures as an educational device, “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy,” and they were meant to advance together. These two characters endure to this day in Chinese imaginations, as does the May 4th Movement itself: The leaders at Tiananmen, which broke open 70 years later, consciously modeled their own movement on the earlier one.
Today, of course, we see Mr. Science sprinting ahead while Mr. Democracy seems either to stand still or, as Ai’s arrest suggests, to go backward. The truth is more complex, as Ai himself knows well. China’s story the whole of the modern era has been one of ebb and flow. If you walk and talk among the Chinese, especially those of the younger generation, you often find higher expectations for a democratic future than you do among most Westerners.
Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, did well when he spoke on Ai’s behalf this week in celebration of an outdoor opening of the artist’s sculptures in midtown Manhattan. We don’t know Ai’s thoughts at this moment, but one is nearly certain he stands with the long-term optimists as to the cause that got him in trouble.
China today is a vast field of aspiration. The economic side of this is plainly evident to all of us. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the other half of that duo hatched nine decades ago. Ai Weiwei hasn’t, and neither have many million other Chinese. “To dissent is to declare optimism,” an Indian friend once told me. “Otherwise, there would be no point.”
It seems true the world over. Mr. Democracy will have his day in China, though we should expect him to look Chinese when he finally appears, not Western.