Across Canada and around the world this week, there will be commemorations, vigils and demonstrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square; but not in China.

The Chinese government has successfully re-written this recent chapter of the nation’s history, casting the peaceful protesters who stood for democracy as counter-revolutionaries and lionizing the courageous soldiers who risked their lives to control a riot.

The government has a record of success in promoting revisionist history to mask the truth, according to Rowena Xiaoqing He, a China scholar and lecturer at Harvard University. She is also the author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.

Forbidden City

The Chinese government has a record of success in promoting revisionist history to mask the truth about events like Tiananmen Square, according to Rowena Xiaoqing He, a China scholar and lecturer at Harvard University. (REUTERS)

"Even in the Great Famine that happened between 1958 and ’62, there were 36 million people who starved to death and they have summarized this as a three-year natural disaster," she said in an interview with Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition. "And that was twice the death toll of World War One."

No one has been able to confirm the death toll in the Tiananmen Square massacre. The figure ranges from hundreds to thousands. At one point, the Chinese Red Cross estimated 2,600 then retracted that number.

Death of a reformer

The spark that ignited the uprising at Tiananmen Square was the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer. He had been deposed as the General Secretary of the Communist Party after taking a stand in favour of political and economic change, and against corruption in the party elite.

The Sunday Edition

On CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on June 1 starting at 9 a.m. eastern: 

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  • How we view animals: David Fraser of UBC's Animal Welfare Program discusses the changes he has observed over his 40-year career in the way humans consider animals.
  • Passion for Canada: Award-winning American writer Richard Ford's latest novel is called simply "Canada." He discusses why.

At first the students gathered to mourn, but their grief soon turned into grievance. They called for democratic reform, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and government accountability.

The citizens of Beijing rallied to support what came to be known as the Democracy Movement. As weeks passed and news of a student hunger strike spread across the country, there were sympathetic protests in about 400 cities.

One of them was Guangzhou, where Rowena Xiaoqing He was a 17-year-old student. She lived close enough to Hong Kong to pick up images and stories about Tiananmen that were being broadcast by Hong Kong television.

"When I first told my father I wanted to join the demonstrations, he just said yes without hesitation," Rowena recalled. "The movement was a nationwide movement that happened all over China."

Bloody crackdown

Ultimately, the government decided the protests must be stopped with force. Authorities declared martial law on May 20 and leader Deng Xiaoping mobilized between 200,000 and 300,000 troops in the nation’s capital, including tanks and helicopters.

Soldiers first opened fire on unarmed protesters on the evening of June 3 and the massacre continued into the early hours of June 4. There were reports that tanks mowed down tents with students inside; soldiers opened fire not just on the streets, but killed bystanders on balconies surrounding the Square.

In the morning, troops shot parents who were walking the streets in search of their children. Infuriated citizens tried to fight back with sticks, rocks and Molotov cocktails, and there were reports of casualties among the soldiers. The Chinese government later used these incidents to argue that the troops were justified in using force and were acting in self-defence.

Rowena Xiaoqing He

Rowena Xiaoqing He, a China scholar and lecturer at Harvard University, pores over photos and records of the Tiananmen Square massacre with her students. (Courtesy Rowena Xiaoqing He)

In the aftermath of the massacre there were mass arrests of protesters and sympathizers, some of whom were executed and others imprisoned. The government ordered media to stop broadcasts and shut down satellite transmissions. They arrested many Chinese journalists and expelled foreign reporters from the country.

When Rowena returned to school after the military crackdown, she wore the traditional sign of mourning, a black armband. "My teacher came over to me and said, ‘If you do not take that off, no one can protect you from now on.’"

She removed the armband.

"I was a coward. I didn’t want to be expelled from school and I didn’t want to go to prison," she says.

Revising history

The government acted quickly to suppress further protests and to reframe its own role.

Tiananmen Square crowd

Crowds of jubilant students surge through a police cordon before pouring into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. (Reuters)

"On the one hand, the government wanted to make sure those who participated in it, those who experienced it, that they would remember what the consequences would be if they did this again," Rowena said. "And for those who had never experienced it, they wanted to make sure that they did not know or, if they did know, they only knew the official version."

The government version of events was promoted through an elaborate "Patriotic Education Campaign," which included a revision of all school books. In essence, Rowena said, the government convinced the populace that the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese people and the Chinese nation were one.

"The army soldiers became the guardians of the public, and the military crackdown was justified as one that was necessary for stability and prosperity. It was also against a Western conspiracy to divide and weaken China," Rowena said.

"That’s why before the Olympics of 2008, we saw the global emergence of China defendants, raising red flags and cursing the Dalai Lama. Whenever you criticize the regime they feel you’re criticizing the nation and the people … and at the same time, there is a sense that China is being victimized by the West."

Tiananmen Square

In an iconic photo from the 1989 crackdown on protesters by the Chinese government, an unidentified man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading toward student-led popular demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. (Jeff Widener/AP)

It is not permitted to speak publicly or to write about Tiananmen in China, and material with the date of June 4 meets instantly with the country’s internet firewall. Rowena says that for some time the Democracy Movement used "May 35" as a way to bypass Chinese censors, however that date is now also banned.

Outside the country, the government has spread its information campaign through Confucius Institutes. In exchange for funding and free teachers and teaching tools, the Chinese government has established hundreds of these centres around the world, including eight in Canadian universities. The Toronto District School Board also recently announced it has agreed to open a Confucius Institute. There are ongoing concerns about their impact on academic freedom.

Rowena said the Tiananmen Square Massacre remains an open wound that will not heal until the people of China are allowed to mourn.

"We have never been given the opportunity to even light a candle for the deaths. We were not able to express our anger and fear. Any kind of suppression of history and memory is followed by distortions of all kinds – psychological, political and social – in a society."

[Listen to the full interview with Rowena Xiaoqing He on The Sunday Edition on CBC radio starting at 9 a.m. June 1, or in the link at the top-left of this page.]