For a quarter century after the events of June 1989, euphemisms have obscured what took place and disputes about the protest’s goals continue. Are we any closer to clarity?

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 a 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 China’s capital. Most people think they already know the truth about Tiananmen. 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, mowing students down by the hundreds.

This 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. On 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 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 the uncertainty as to how many people were actually killed on that fateful night and whether anyone was killed within the boundaries of Tiananmen Square itself, literally and narrowly defined. The Chinese government has always maintained that the death toll was “around 200,” including soldiers, and that nobody was actually slain in the square.

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 “2/26 (ni-ni-roku jiken) 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 a bloodletting took place in Beijing on the night of June 3, 1989. And there is no question that 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. By the time they reached the Square, the students were already filing out.

Similar questions still surround precisely 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 was 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 the 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, and 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. So the solution is to find ways to give them more prosperity. If people are busy getting on with their lives, they will be happy and not agitate for political reforms. 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 did not debate the finer points of Westminster style parliamentary democracy for China. Yet, Tiananmen 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.

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek.