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.
“Anti-personnel carriers and tanks then ran backwards and forwards over the bodies of the slain until they were reduced to pulp, after which, bulldozers moved in to push the remains into piles which were then incinerated by troops with flamethrowers.”
“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.
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.
“As soon as I heard this, I felt empty, and tears fell involuntarily.”
In the days afterwards, Ms Li told the ABC, she joined a protest outside of Sydney’s Chinese embassy where she became an inadvertent activist.
“Nobody said anything but people were in silence,” she said.
“After waiting for a while, I couldn’t bear it anymore, for nobody dared to say anything, so I jumped out to speak and led the day’s activities.”
From then on, Ms Li became an advocate for China’s pro-democracy movement in exile for several years, thanks to Hawke’s decision to grant asylum to people like her.
“At that time, we were very touched and moved by Hawke’s speech. He stood with us who pursued democracy and freedom,” Ms Li said.
“I was extremely grateful for Mr Hawke granting us Chinese students protection and asylum in Australia”.
For her advocacy, however, Ms Li paid a big price — as her six-year-old son was prevented from leaving China for six years after she took Australian asylum in 1989.
“My son was very small at the time, he didn’t know much, but for me, the loss was huge. I missed his most important period of life,” she said.
“The relationship between a mother and her son was lost. This created lifetime pain for me.”
‘Forgetting history is treason’
Jun Yang is another one of thousands who were able to remain in Australia thanks to Hawke’s asylum decision.
In April and May 1989, Mr Yang led solidarity student protests in Sydney after arriving in Australia in March of that year.
Like Ms Li, the Tiananmen Square massacre thrust Mr Yang into a position he was unfamiliar with.
“When the massacre happened, I was pushed to the position of a student leader. In fact, I was full of energy and enthusiasm 31 years ago,” Mr Yang said.
He told the ABC he received three bullets in the mail and a note asking him to “shut up” and be careful of his “stupid head”.
But Mr Yang said consequences like these paled in comparison to what students had attempted to do in Beijing — a decision that would ultimately cost many their lives.
“So many ordinary citizens and students died during the Tiananmen Square Massacre,” Mr Yang said.
“Compared to them, we have done very little and [it’s] insignificant. We just shouted a few slogans and did something that our conscience told us to do, but it was us [who] benefited the most from it in the end.”
One of the lasting legacies from the horrors of Tiananmen was refuge for those who wanted to make a home in Australia.
And for that, Mr Yang said he’d always be grateful to the Hawke government and the Australian people.
However, on the 31st anniversary of Hawke’s asylum decision, Mr Yang said he was “saddened” to see that some of his peers who witnessed the events of Tiananmen had become supporters of the Chinese Communist Party.
“There is a Chinese saying that forgetting history is treason,” he said.
‘Without Bob Hawke, I wouldn’t have been born’
The young Chinese students of 1989 have since grown older and become parents. Many of their children are now adults, and some have children of their own.
Tandee Wang, a 21-year-old second-generation Chinese-Australian, is an Australian history scholar at the Australian National University (ANU), whose father, Andrew, was involved in Australia’s Tiananmen protests.
Through his research, Mr Wang was able to find a photo of his father as a protester in the West Australian. He was listed as an unnamed Chinese protester.
Andrew Wang migrated to Australia from Shanghai in 1988 and took up asylum when it was offered a year later.
His son told the ABC that the events of 1989 didn’t loom large in his upbringing and he only started looking into his family’s involvement in that history two years ago, when his mother mentioned it in passing.
“For me growing up, and for my Chinese-Australian, second-generation Chinese friends, it wasn’t a big thing,” Mr Wang said.
“I went to a school with a lot of other second-generation Chinese people, and I don’t think it figured [large] very much at all.
“I didn’t know for a long time that my parents were part of this group of Chinese people until my Dad mentioned it once and my Mum said that he was in a newspaper.”
It’s this personal history that is driving Mr Wang’s current research, which is looking at the impact of Tiananmen Square on Australian migration policy and the massacre’s influence on the perceptions of Chinese people in Australia.
Mr Wang told the ABC the “symbolism” of Hawke’s decision weighs “really heavily” on his understanding of Tiananmen’s Australian legacy.
“You know, it’s hard to get away from the fact that without Bob Hawke, I probably wouldn’t ever have been born — I’m the second child,” Mr Wang said.
“If my parents stayed in China, I wouldn’t have been born.”
By Jason Fang and Alan Weedon