China’s Tiananmen generation reflect on how Bob Hawke gave them a permanent Australian home

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It’s been 31 years since the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese people were changed in an instant.

In 1989, former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke broke down in tears on the nation’s televisions as he described the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square days before.

On June 4, 1989, the Chinese Government turned its tanks and soldiers on the protesters, whose ranks had swelled to over 1 million in the months leading up to the crackdown.

While Beijing has officially stated that 200 civilians were killed in the crackdown, other estimates of the death toll have ranged from a few hundred to several thousand people. A released British diplomatic cable from 2017 said the number was closer to 10,000.

On June 9, Australians watched live as their prime minister described how soldiers “went through the square, bayonetting or shooting anybody who was still alive”.

“They had orders that nobody in the square be spared, and children and young girls were slaughtered,” Hawke said.

“Incredibly, despite the horrors and the risks, we have witnessed acts of indescribable bravery on our television screens.”

During his speech, Hawke did something unprecedented — he offered asylum to some 42,000 Chinese nationals in Australia as a consequence of the massacre.

This even surprised his cabinet, who weren’t consulted on the decision prior to Hawke’s announcement on live television.

More than 30 years on from that twist of fate, the beneficiaries of that announcement have developed Australian roots that span generations — here are some of their stories.

‘We were touched and moved’

Juan Li moved to Sydney from the city of Qiangdao in February 1989.

While she was in Australia temporarily to learn English, the events of June 4 would change her life forever.

“In the early hours of June 4, 1989, a friend of mine called. With his broken voice, he told me that the Chinese soldiers opened fire on students in Beijing,” Ms Li said.

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