International commentators will surely have the most to say about the protests of 1989 this week. This is because the anniversary of the June 4th Massacre regularly triggers reflection on how China has and hasn’t changed in recent years. Still, as important as looking back to 1989 remains (I’ll likely be writing on the topic myself in the coming days, as I have done in past year), the other two famous springtime historical struggles named for dates are more helpful points of references when it comes to putting the latest headlines into perspective.
This is because grievances associated with Japan or Japanese companies were not involved in the 1989 protest, as they are now and were in 1919 and 1925. And the most relevant of the three historic protest waves just now is the May 30th Movement, due to these three basic things that the 1925 unrest and the 2010 Foshan strikes have in common:
1) The May 30th Movement began with strikes by workers who demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form unions–demands that echo those in play now in Foshan.
2) Eighty-five years ago, like today, Japanese companies were at the center of things, though the May 30th Movement started with walkouts at Japanese-owned textile mills rather than auto plants.
3) In 1925, as again in recent days, issues of class and nationalism have become intertwined. One grievance among Chinese employees of Honda, according to some reports at least, is that their wages lag far behind those of Japanese at the same plants.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no reason to think that we are witnessing the start of a 21st century counterpart to any great 20th century struggle. The May 30th Movement evolved from a series of local strikes to a national upheaval, and there’s no sign of that happening now. And the greatest long-term importance of the 1925 protests lay in the way they swelled the ranks of the country’s two main radical groups, both the well-established Nationalist Party (that later took a conservative turn under Chiang Kai-shek) and a fledgling organization known as the Chinese Communist Party. China’s current leaders do not allow competing political organizations to exist, so none are around to capitalize the Foshan strikes or do publicity work to help them grow.