Protesting in the name of science: The legacy of China’s May Fourth Movement

Science & Health

A hundred years after the rally for “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy,” can the pursuit of scientific truth bring political freedom?


When I bade goodbye to my family in China in the summer of 2009, I proudly declared that I was going to America to study science — and be free. Always hesitant about her daughter’s choice of science over a more “feminine” discipline, my mother was nevertheless more concerned about my second objective. “What do you mean by ‘being free’? What will you do when you are ‘free’?”

“Focus on your profession,” my mother warned. “Don’t talk about politics. Don’t participate in politics. Don’t ever join street demonstrations, not even for the spectacle.”

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What is the role of scientists in affairs of the state? Do science and freedom go hand-in-hand? In the country I left 10 years ago, the beginning of the past century saw science as a rallying cry for national renewal. In the many decades since, science was used as a cause for political struggle. It was hailed as the most potent productive force, and branded a counter-revolutionary crime. It was the most worshipped, and at times most vilified. In the hundred years since the May Fourth Movement, generations of Chinese intellectuals have protested in the name of science. The story of their triumph and tragedy is an exercise of individual agency against state power, a questioning of humanist values versus technological might, and a search for universal truth in the confines of national identity.


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“We believe only these two gentlemen can bring salvation from all the darkness in China, be it political, moral, intellectual, or spiritual. In support of these two gentleman, we are willing to endure any oppression from the state or attacks from society. Even bloodshed and martyrdom are no reasons for abandonment.”

When Chen Duxiu 陈独秀 wrote these words in the pages of New Youth in January 1919, the two figures he was referring to were not actual people, but abstract concepts of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.”

The first decades of the 20th century in China was a time of immense loss and infinite possibilities. Foreign invasions and internal upheaval ended the last dynasty, but no one knew what kind of Chinese nation should be built from the ruins of empire. Even the very ideas of nation and people, detached from the throne, were newly construed. The only item of certainty was that China was weak, having suffered devastating battleground defeats and humiliating treaty concessions. The call for “self-strengthening” had started in the mid-19th century with learning advanced technology from Western countries, and progressed to include governmental reforms and overthrowing the millennia-old imperial system. By the time Chen started his pathbreaking literary journal in 1915, the revolution was happening at the heart of Chinese culture.

Like many progressive intellectuals of his time, Chen called for “destruction before construction” in forging a new China. The impressive reservoir of natural studies from the imperial era was relegated to superstition and pseudoscience, part of the “rotten and decayed” cultural albatross that held the country back. Severed from traditional learning, modern science in China started largely as a Western import, alongside a flood of new ideas for literature, education, and governance.

The New Culture Movement culminated on May 4, 1919. Thousands of patriotic students took to the streets to protest the outcome of the Versailles Peace Conference, which allowed Japan to occupy former German concessions in China. Gathering in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen 天安门), the students denounced imperial aggression and the ineptitude of the Nationalist government, and called for “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” to save their battered homeland.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the May Fourth Movement to the course of modern Chinese history. The intellectual unrest of the scholar elite, combined with the spirit of mass uprising, directly contributed to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The October Revolution that overthrew the Russian Tsar a few years earlier made the new theory of collectivism particularly appealing to those in China who had lost faith in the corrupt and dictatorial Nationalist government and were eager for new ideas to save their country.

Chen was one of the Party’s co-founders. The flourishing of thought during the New Culture Movement was a precious moment of free inquiry, but the urgency of national peril did not allow debates of best governance to be a purely academic exercise. Despite the cosmopolitan ideals in science and democracy, individual enlightenment soon gave way to collective allegiance.


Marxism purports objectivity and scientific truth, and the Communist Party presented itself as the Party for science and the Party of modernity. Mr. Science became a soldier of the Red Army.


When the students of Beijing were chanting his name for national salvation, the long, dark shadow of Mr. Science was already exposed on the battlefields of Europe, where advanced technology became tools of slaughter. Witnessing the catastrophic aftermath of the Great War, a number of Chinese intellectuals started questioning the omnipotence of Western science, and used elements of traditional Chinese philosophy to argue for a more humanist vision of development. In what became known as the “Debate on Science and Philosophy of Life” that continued into the early 1920s, several leading members of the newly founded Chinese Communist Party joined the fray. Marxism purports objectivity and scientific truth, and the Communist Party presented itself as the Party for science and the Party of modernity. Mr. Science became a soldier of the Red Army.

As different political factions fought for control of China, they all resembled the enemy they denounced: brutal, paranoid, and authoritarian. Increasingly disillusioned with the ideological rigidity of Communism and political oppression practiced by Stalin and Mao, Chen was ousted from the Party for “rightist opportunism” in 1927. The first general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party lived his final years an impoverished school teacher, haunted by the ghost of Mr. Democracy, seeking solace in the ancient Chinese scripts he once so fiercely demolished.

Science symbolThirty years after students rallied for science and democracy to save China, the Communists won the civil war against the Nationalist government. In December 1949, the newly founded People’s Republic named the fourth of May “National Youth Day.”

The movement of 1919 was important to the Party’s history, but its memory must be carefully culled. The free spirit of May Fourth was contradictory to the ideological dogma the government now imposed. Many of the movement’s central figures, like Chen Duxiu, had complicated lives that do not fit into a simplified official narrative. When the revolutionary becomes the dictator, it understands too well how its own path to power is a threat to the power it now holds.

Having long abandoned the path of democracy, the Party appropriated science as its claim to legitimacy: if science meant the one and only truth, then the Party of science must be the one and only ruler. In the name of science, Mao’s government pushed bold campaigns to strengthen the nation as well as its own power. Scientific disciplines that contribute to national defense, such as space and nuclear programs, were prioritized. From building dams to leveling mountains, struggles against nature itself were carried out in the name of proletariat revolution, sometimes to disastrous effects. The Great Leap Forward caused a great famine that claimed tens of millions of Chinese lives. In waves of ideological campaigns starting from the mid-1950s, independent thought was labeled reactionary, and science became synonymous with political correctness.

During the Cultural Revolution, everything traditional was deemed unscientific and hence counter-revolutionary, while everything Western, including modern science, was bourgeois and also counter-revolutionary. Schools were closed. Books were burned. For several years from the late 1960s, the Party of science brought science in China to an almost complete halt.

In a remarkable episode of irony, the esoteric theory of parity violation was accepted by the fervent revolutionaries and used as a weapon against other branches of science. The concept in particle physics that proves the handedness of the universe was proposed by the Chinese physicists Chen Ning Yang 杨振宁 and Tsung-Dao Lee 李政道 when they were both working in the U.S., making the duo the first Nobel Laureates of Chinese origin. In his trips to China in the early 1970s, Yang, then a naturalized U.S. citizen, met with the highest levels of the Chinese government, including the Great Helmsman himself. In addition to ethnic pride and political clout associated with the two scientists, enthused apparatchiks in their birth country were quick to declare that if the symmetry of the universe was violated, what laws of nature could not be broken in the people’s revolutionary struggle?


When the revolutionary becomes the dictator, it understands too well how its own path to power is a threat to the power it now holds.


Labelled a “class enemy” and sent to hard labor like most of his colleagues, the physicist Fang Lizhi 方励之 used spare time from working at a camera factory to study astrophysics and cosmology. In 1972, when the fever of the Cultural Revolution broke and the journal Physica resumed operations, Fang published a short paper in it called, “On a Cosmological Solution for Matter and Black Body Radiation Using Scalar-Tensor Theory.” It was the first paper on modern cosmology in China, and it caused a political firestorm. “He was heavily criticized for it,” recalled physicist Li Shuxian 李淑娴, Fang’s widow. “People said how could the cosmos have a mathematical solution? All questions about the universe were answered in Marxism.”

Writing in his memoir, Fang pointed out that from the Vatican to the Soviet Union, cosmology had often been risky business when the movement of stars contradicted religious doctrine or political ideology. The pursuit of scientific truth against political pressure was a form of protest in itself.

Science symbolBy the 60th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, Mao was dead, political fanaticism had ebbed, and the country was in desperate need of revival from decades of self-inflicted destruction. In addition to economic reforms, scientific development and liberation of thought were once again called upon to salvage a battered nation.

Politically rehabilitated, Fang was elected the youngest member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1980, and became the executive vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) four years later. “Science, democracy, creativity, and independence” were his vision for the university.

An internationally renowned astrophysicist and public intellectual, Fang gave numerous speeches across China, advocating democracy and human rights. Speaking at CAS in 1985 with the title “The Civic Duties of Scientists,” Fang told a room full of graduate students that a scientist’s work should not be “limited to the desk,” but must also include social issues and participation in democratic governance.

On December 4, 1986, Fang made arguably his best-known speech on the upcoming city council election in the western district of Hefei, where USTC is located: “I do not think democracy is bestowed from the top down. It is fought for from the bottom up.”

The next day, students of USTC, joined by peers from other local universities, formed a 4,000-strong march on the streets of Hefei, protesting the city’s “rubber stamp” district council and its sham elections. The bold move quickly ignited similar demonstrations across China. By Christmas, the wave had spread from south of the Yangtze to the northern capital.

The response from the Party was swift and resolute. In the “struggle against bourgeois liberalization,” protestors were dispersed with force. Student leaders were arrested. Fang was fired from USTC and relegated to a research position at Beijing Observatory.

Fang’s new workplace is the modern successor to an ancient institution. Over millennia, the correct interpretation and prediction of astrophysical phenomena was central to imperial charisma. Chinese astronomers worked at observatories across the Middle Kingdom, scouring the sky and serving the court.

When the mandate from heaven was sought to rule all under heaven, the explosion of a supernova was an ominous sign. The violent death of a star could forbode the fall of an emperor. Upon its sighting, the court’s chief astronomer would usually advise his master to issue a “grand amnesty,” a magnanimous gesture to appease heaven’s rage.

In January 1989, Fang finished a paper on Supernova 1987a. The closest supernova explosion in centuries, its light had reached Earth two years prior. Invoking the ancient tradition of “grand amnesty,” Fang wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping, China’s then paramount leader, petitioning the release of political prisoners. “How can it be that people who claim to lead the world’s most advanced human society turn out to be less magnanimous than the emperors of a thousand years ago, who could ‘benefit the world’ by granting amnesties?” Fang wrote in his memoir of the inspiration behind the letter.

That February, the astrophysicist spoke to the History of Science Society at Peking University. Noting how commemorations of May Fourth had emphasized national salvation instead of “science and democracy,” Fang warned the audience of the limits of patriotism, “an emotion constantly subject to political exploitation.” As the laws of physics apply universal, “the validity of human rights does not depend on the particular culture involved.”


That spring was the last time everything seemed possible in China.


As the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement approached, the official slogan was “Patriotism, Reform, Enterprise, Advancement.” Despite their absence from the government’s narrative, “science and democracy” was being chanted once again by students rallying in the nation’s capital. To many, that spring was the last time everything seemed possible in China.

Through the dynasties, the Chinese literati submitted themselves to the imperial court for education and employment. They studied the court-sanctioned canons, advised the government, and sometimes criticized its policies, but their dissent was channeled through and contained within the state structure, with no room for political pluralism. At the time of the May Fourth Movement, the flicker of hope for democratic governance was quickly dimmed by war and extinguished by Mao’s campaigns. In the 1980s, with the opening up of markets and liberalization of society, Chinese intellectuals sought civic space outside the Party-state, and envisioned changes to the existing political order. Whatever hopes that decade brought, they were crushed on June 4, 1989, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.

Fang spent the rest of his life in exile, teaching astrophysics at the University of Arizona. He died in 2012. At his final resting place in Tuscan, the epitaph reads: “The meaning of life lies in unrelenting pursuits, in pursuit of the beauty and harmony in nature, in pursuit of perfecting one’s body and mind, and in pursuit of the transcendence of thought.”

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For two thousand years, the issuance of a new calendar was the most important ritual in China. The elaborate document, an impressive feat of mathematics and astronomy, was first and foremost a tool of empire. The passage of celestial bodies divined the future, marking the coronation of a new emperor or the beginning of a new dynasty. The granting of seasons guided farmers with planting and harvest, but as political scientist James C. Scott articulated in his book Seeing like a State, such service also made the territories more “legible” to their rulers and hence easier to control.

Modern-day China, as most of the world, uses the Gregorian calendar. When the government selected some combination of numbers and infused them with meaning, a universal set of dates became another carrier of state authority. October 1 celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic. July 1 commemorates the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. May 4 calls on patriotic youth to serve the motherland. June 4 is a day that does not exist.


For many Chinese scientists disappointed by their government and fearful of its retribution, their refusal to serve in an administrative position is a silent form of protest. Staying out of politics becomes a political act in itself.


When the state places its own power above all else, and sees science as its most potent tool, what means do scientists have to exercise their conscience? They may see in science as contributing to their country’s modernization, or simply want to advance human understanding of nature. For many Chinese scientists disappointed by their government and fearful of its retribution, their profession is their refuge, and their refusal to serve in an administrative position is a silent form of protest. Staying out of politics becomes a political act in itself.

“Study well math, physics, and chemistry, and you can walk around the world unafraid.” This saying, a succinct, rhyming 12 characters in Chinese (学好数理化,走遍天下都不怕), originated from the nuclear program in the 1950s, and was passed down from my parents’ generation to mine. I could not become a lawyer without the rule of law, a journalist without a free press, or a politician without democratic elections. Of the many dreams I had as a child, science was the only profession I could pursue without compromise. The simple elegance of nature offered me clarity in an uncertain world. When the study of science finally took me across the oceans, leaving the land of my birth was also my form of protest.

“Do you plan to go back to China?” I am often asked.

“No,” is my reply. “I need to live in a free country.” Having experienced the unburdening of fear and self-censorship, my answer is no longer an imaginary goal, but a statement on a human condition: I need to eat, breathe, and live free.

As the Chinese government embarks on its mission to become a “science and technology superpower,” a flurry of job opportunities have been popping up at its universities and research institutions. For many overseas scientists who have accepted positions in China, their choice does not mean endorsement of the Chinese government or disregard for the social cost of their work. Nevertheless, like the ancient astronomers mapping the sky for their emperor, by working for the state, Chinese scientists have also submitted their science to the government’s agenda and themselves to political control. Between livelihood and freedom, between martyrdom and complicity, what choice does a Chinese scientist have?

Science symbol

I participated in the first public demonstration of my life at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2017. Almost a century after patriotic Chinese intellectuals summoned Mr. Science to guide their country out of darkness, the world saw the largest political mobilization of its scientific community.

In their effort to broaden the appeal, organizers were quick to label their event “non-partisan.” However, it’s apparent that the march was a protest against the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward truth and scientific expertise. Nature has no political ideology, but science as a primarily state-funded human endeavor is inherently political. In the heated debates leading to the march about its mission and messaging, scientists including myself were confronted with a reckoning: should we challenge the powers that be at the risk of our careers, or strive to protect the cosmopolitan ideal of science from negative consequences of politics?

Over the past few years, I have made regular trips to Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and their staff to advocate for federal support of basic research. Each time I walk into an office, knowing the name on the door touts policies that discriminate against women, immigrants, and people of color, all of which I am, I am gripped with a deep sense of unease. How different am I from my colleagues in China whose career paths I so firmly rejected? If I benefit from an unjust system, am I not also contributing to my own oppression?

I wrestled with the idea of joining the march. What does it mean to “march for science”? Is science an inherent force for good? The three-word slogan, at its most aspirational, was an appeal to universal truth and our common humanity; at its most banal, it could as well be interpreted as a march for science funding.

When I finally decided to participate, I told myself that for all its flaws and limitations, protesting in public, like meeting with Congress, was a right my birth country had denied me. The very exercising of such a right was an act of liberation.

Among an estimated 1 million participants globally, more than 100,000 gathered at the National Mall that Saturday morning. I had no idea how empowering it would feel to put one’s body into the street for a shared cause, until the moment I was in it. Under a murky sky, a field of colorful placards blossomed next to endless smiling faces. Some protesters donned goggles and lab coats. A few put on dinosaur costumes, reminding the world that evolution is not a myth. As the jubilant crowd proceeded from the foot of the Washington Monument toward Capitol Hill, I had the inexplicable urge to shake into everyone around me a reminder of what happened the last time people protested in another capital. “Do you know my people died for what you are doing now?” I wanted to shout. “Do you ever think about the cost of freedom?”

Instead, I bit my tongue, and felt guilty for having such a selfish thought during a collective act. It had been raining all morning, sogging our signs but not damping the spirit. Somewhere beneath a sea of umbrellas someone started chanting, and we all followed:

What does democracy look like?

This is what democracy looks like.

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Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month:

Thicker than blood