Western Influence on Intellectual Movements in China

These considerations give us a limited objective — to mark some of the broad outlines and trace some of the main patterns in the intellectual history of modern China’s attempt to comprehend the West and adjust to it. The study proceeds on the assumption that Western influence did indeed precipitate the remaking of Chinese life and values (Gu and Goldman 2004 74). The imitation of Western arms, the program of “Self-strengthening” through Western studies, later through industrialization and eventually through institutional reform, the movement for revolution and republicanism— all these and many other programs have had their day and contributed to the long struggle for the remaking of Chinese life. All of them have been related, in greater or less degree, to the Western influence on China, even down to the alleged “American imperialism” (Ghai 1999 32). The story of what happened during 1 920s and I 910s and World War II and its aftermath to the overseas trained intellectuals and the role they played in China’s history after World War II can be told through the recollections of Chen Renbing and the overseas educated. They reflected on their lives as intellectual; in China during the rise and implementation of communism and anti-intellectual movements, including the Thought Reform Movement, the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution and the downfall of the Gang of Four and an attempt to return to a more civil society (Gu and Goldman 2004 74). These mostly male intellectuals provided fascinating details of their early lives and education abroad (Ghai 1999 32). However, even more questions arose with the realization that their influence upon returning to China was severely limited by anti-intellectual mass political movements.


May Fourth Movement in 1919

The incident of May 4, 1919, was provoked by the decision of the peacemakers at Versailles to leave in Japanese hands the former German concessions in Shandong. News of this decision led some 3,000 students from Beida and other Beijing institutions to hold a mass demonstration at the Tiananmen, the gateway to the palace. They burned the house of a pro-Japanese cabinet minister and beat the Chinese minister to Japan (Ghai 1999 33). Police attacked the students and they thereupon called a student strike, sent telegrams to students elsewhere, and organized patriotic teams to distribute leaflets and make speeches among the populace (Gittings 1996 268). Similar demonstrations were staged in Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Fuzhou, Guangzhou, and elsewhere (Gu and Goldman 2004 74). A few students were killed and others were wounded (Rodan 2004 231). The prisons were soon full of demonstrators. Visits by Bertrand Russel and John Dewey, coupled with a large number of Chinese students seeking education in Europe, Great Britain and the United States, promised, a new epoch in China’s relations with the rest of the world (Gittings 1996 268). Some Chinese Critics blamed the government’s woes on its Eurasian nature, a reference to the many foreign advisers and Western-educated Chinese in its ranks (Ghai 1999 33). Rising patriotic sentiment was accompanied by heightened anti-foreign feeling. A generation of intellectuals whose mettle was forged in the May Fourth movement of 1919 sought inspiration from the West, absorbing Western ideas and values while rejecting Western influence in China (Rodan 2004 231). As the Nanking government centralized its power in the early 1930s, it tightened censorship and restricted intellectual freedoms (Zhao 2000 268). In the midst of civil war, any form of dissent, especially of a Communist flavor, was severely repressed, and a sort of ‘reign of terror” existed on some university campuses, with occasional raids, expulsions, and arrests. Espousal of communism was a capital offense and often no proof was required. In one incident, six young writers were forced to dig their own graves and then buried alive—an ancient punishment (Ghai 1999 34).

Student Protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989

In the spring of 1989, what began as a student protest in Beijing galvanized diverse social groups throughout China. Spurred by the death of the popular pro-democracy Politburo member Hu Yaobang, university students began a series of protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the civic and cultural heart of China (Rodan 2004 232). The students camped out in Tiananmen Square, listening to speeches, chanting slogans, and singing songs of freedom and protest. Print and broadcast media covered the lofty pronouncements of the charismatic student leaders (Gries and Rosen 2001 211). For many students, influenced by exposure to Western ideas as China opened its doors in the preceding decade, democracy appeared simply to mean freedom of press and expression (Ghai 1999 35). After some weeks, the students held the entire nation of China in thrall, threatening the ideological hold of Deng arid the other octogenarian Communist Party leaders (Zhao 2000 268). Traditionally, the people of China have viewed student protests respectfully (Gries and Rosen 2001 211). Western liberalization and significant political inclinations influence Chinese students to rally protest in realization to their demands of rights and appropriate humanitarian treatment, such as those performed in Western lands (Pok Xing 2004 121). The students, in fact, consciously sought to associate themselves with the May 4th Movement, a popular and patriotic pre-republic protest against foreign domination. At the core of the students’ concerns was a hope for greater democracy (Jeans 1997 184). Indeed, one of the most enduring symbols of the Tiananmen Square protests was the erection of a large-scale statue— the “Goddess of Democracy. In 1989, the economic reform initiated by Deng was a decade old, and many within China—even at the highest levels of government—believed that it was time for political reform as well (Gries and Rosen 2001 212-213). By May, the protests had expanded to nearly forty cities throughout China. The students drew support from many elements of Chinese society—from journalists, intellectuals frustrated by the Communist Party’s tight control over free expression in the press and academic institutions, urban workers concerned about growing inflation (nearly 27 percent in the first four months of 1989), and even bureaucrats upset about government corruption (Gries and Rosen 2001 212-213). The participation of workers m the protests were especially galling and worrisome to Communist Party officials. The party was, after all, supposed to be the vanguard of the workers (He 2001 88). Moreover, as events in Tiananmen Square were unfolding, party leaders were aware that Lech Walesa had recently led the independent trade union Solidarity in a call for political reform and free elections in Poland (Pok Xing 2004 121).

Spiritual Pollution Policy

Spiritual pollution and the closely related evil, “bourgeois liberalization,” are defined as beliefs in excessive and unchecked freedoms that undermine the four basic principles (Wood 2002 46). The ideological battle against such pollution was urgent but this problem occurred in the thinking of Party members, cadres and the people generally (He 2001 88). As a contradiction among the people, spiritual pollution could be solved using study, criticism and self-criticism. The place for eliminating such evils among united front targets was the institute of socialism (Chi 1996 196). China is particularly sensitive about Western cultural influence. Haunted by anti-foreignism, which ebbs and flows in recent Chinese history, China regards Western media fare as an important source of spiritual pollution and peaceful evolution (Wood 2002 46). News of the anti-spiritual pollution movement and its activities were like a virus spreading over China (Jeans 1997 184). In some places it took a serious turn and in some areas, like in Guangdong, it only received lip service (He 2001 88). With the campaign of party rectification proceeding at the same time, it was like the San-fan and Wu-fan campaigns revisited, but on a smaller scale. History came back to haunt the entrepreneurs, who were just recovering from the wrath of Mao and still hoping to overcome their fear of life uncertainty Mass campaigns in China typically had not been limited to the goal of the campaign but easily rolled over to microeconomic aspects of life, thus making life miserable for private entrepreneurs and consumers alike (Chi 1996 196).

Western Influence: To Lead in China’s Democracy

First, political civilization is part of the civilization of humankind: and advanced political civilization includes progressive political ideas, such as democracy, liberty, equality, fairness, justice, political transparency, and human rights, which are shared by all human beings (He 2001 88). Second, the development of socialist democracy in China should correspond to the country’s economic and social development as well as its political tradition, and China should never copy any Western political models. Third, in promoting political development, China can learn from the achievements of political civilization of other peoples, including some ideologies of Western democracy in terms of theoretical principles, institutional design, and political process (Wood 2002 48). Fourth, the priority in developing political civilization is to ensure that China’s socialist democracy is institutionalized and standardized, with corresponding procedures (Liew 2004 158). Such a theoretical innovation suggests Beijing’s flexibility and bottom line in search for the socialist democracy in general and intra-party democracy in particular (Gittings 1996 268). The influence of Western ideologies are significantly manifested in Chinese intellectual protests from the time of May fourth protests up to the latest at Tiananmen Square in 1989; hence, the possibility to utilizing western influence, particularly in democratic ideologies, can be a potential tool in introducing the concepts of democracy to the society and political system (Liew 2004 158).


The central theme of modern Chinese history has been to compete with the West so as to gain a foothold in the modern world. In the transformation to study western learning to achieve national prosperity and strength in modern times, China made a tremendous effort and paid dearly. Western learning spread in the beginning of this century, however the concepts of the rights and of the rule of law went against feudal social relationships. As with incidents in May fourth and Tiananmen Square, many had liberal if not leftist leanings, and were filled with disillusionment and yearnings for a strong and modern China. The western influences had indeed played significant role in the events; thus, with intellectual bodies stirred up, the possibility of introducing democratic concepts in Chinese society is indeed possible and potential.


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