The 1950 Japanese film "Rashomon" owes its enduring appeal to director Akira Kurosawa's superb treatment of an ancient and universal theme: What is the truth? A samurai and his bride come upon a bandit in a forest grove, where the traveler dies and his wife is ravished. The only witness is a woodcutter. The story turns on the magistrate's efforts to extract the facts from completely different yet equally plausible perceptions of what occurred.
A similar conundrum awaits anyone who wants to unravel the meaning of the events that occurred 25 years ago on the night of June 3, 1989, in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Most people think they already know the truth about Tiananmen Square. The communist rulers of China, determined to crush a pro-democracy movement, sent the soldiers and tanks of the People's Liberation Army, guns blazing, into Beijing's massive central square and mowed students down by the hundreds.
Here is what my own newsmagazine, Asiaweek, wrote in a retrospective six months after Tiananmen: "Beyond question a paroxysm of killing took place that night. What has never been clear was how many died. One June 4, the Chinese Red Cross allegedly issued an estimate of 2,600 dead. The figure was soon disavowed, but the June 5 edition of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post cited ‘diplomatic sources' reckoning a death toll of 1,400. Next day it rose to 4,000. Two days later 7,000."
Yet for years many publications in Asia have shown an extreme reluctance to put the words "Tiananmen" and "massacre" together. My own magazine pussyfooted around the subject by calling it a "crackdown." Even today, the South China Morning Post uses the term "Tiananmen crackdown" in its headlines reporting on the crowds that attend the candlelight vigil honoring the dead that takes place every year in Victoria Park - Hong Kong's smaller version of Tiananmen Square.
In part this reflects an uncertainty as to how many people were actually killed on that fateful night and whether anyone was killed within the literal, narrowly defined boundaries of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government has always maintained that the death toll was "around 200," including soldiers, and that nobody was actually slain on the square itself.
It also reflects a typically Asian penchant to soften traumatic events with euphemisms. On Feb. 2, 1947, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek suppressed island-wide rioting, killing thousands, many more, probably, than died in Beijing. It is known today even in Taiwan simply as the "2/28 Incident." Japanese refer to the bloody coup attempt in Tokyo in 1936 as the "2/36 Incident." For that matter, they refer to the years the Japanese army rampaged through China as the "China Incident."
In a way it is irrelevant whether anyone was actually killed in Tiananmen Square itself. There is no question that the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square was the objective of the Chinese army. Beijing was a city on the edge of insurrection. The PLA converged on the city center from all sides smashing and shooting its way through improvised street barriers. But by the time they reached the Square, the students were already filing out.
Similar questions still surround what the students were demonstrating about. It is an axiom that the students were agitating for democracy in China, and the enduring symbol of their protest is the statue of the Goddess of Democracy they erected in the Square. Yet it is a curious democracy movement that began with the death of Hu Yaoban, who as Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party was certainly no democrat but reputed to be a man of rectitude, and ended with the students singing the anthem of international communism as they exited the Square.
For many years my Chinese colleagues argued that it was wrong to say the demonstrators were agitating for democracy. The students were really against growing corruption that was becoming increasingly evident 10 years after China introduced market reforms. Of course, insisting that the issue was corruption puts a more tolerable light on the student motivations from the government's point of view. Being against corruption is very politically correct. The Chinese Communist Party conducts periodic crackdowns - that word again - on corruption. High-ranking officials are caught, tried and sometimes executed. Yes, being against corruption is fine.
But it is much harder for China's rulers to admit that Chinese people might actually want greater democracy. Perhaps it is a lingering Marxist worldview, but Beijing explains all such disturbances in purely economic terms. People are upset? It must be about the economy. The solution is to find ways to give them more prosperity. People will remain happy and not agitate for political reforms if they are made comfortable. In many ways, events over the past 25 years in China have proved them correct.
It can work for a while, but inevitably it will lead to further blowups. It may be true that the demonstrators 25 years ago did not debate the finer points of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy for China. Yet, the Tiananmen protest was fundamentally and profoundly democratic. Yes, they may have been angry about their leaders' growing corruption. But the people who say the revolt was against corruption are only half right. The underlying message was this: Our leaders are corrupt and we can't do anything to get rid of them. And that is the truth of Tiananmen Square.