Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

‘Grateful’ for asylum after Tiananmen, Chinese student protesters also remember ‘fake refugee’ slurs

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun9,2024
Key Points
  • In the wake of the 4 June 1989 massacre, over 42,000 visas were granted to Chinese citizens.
  • Former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke broke down in tears when delivering a speech about the massacre.
  • Two descendants of the ‘Tiananmen generation’ claim that ‘there is a lot more to discuss’ behind Hawke’s asylum initiative.
WARNING: This article contains descriptions of violence.
Meng* says she has never doubted that her move to Australia was to reunite with her family.
Born in China, she was three when she and her mother moved to Canberra in 1989 to join her father, who was a student in Australia’s capital city.
“I grew up in Canberra but I don’t remember my parents ever telling me why we were leaving China,” she said.
It was only during a recent conversation that Meng asked her father how he obtained permanent residency, where she learned he was one of the 42,000 Chinese students granted asylum by then prime minister Bob Hawke following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
She believes “there is a lot more” to discuss behind the Hawke government’s asylum initiative.
“Any story which involves migration and race in Australia cannot be so simple as saying ‘Hawke was generous and we are grateful’,” she said.

“There is a lot of hard work, sacrifice and determination [involved in the] individual migrant stories that are behind the scenes.”

Australia China Protest

Sun Liyong speaks as a member of the Chinese community in Sydney to mark the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protest in 2009. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft) Credit: AP

On June 4, 1989, following weeks of pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s central square, Chinese troops used guns and tanks to suppress the crowds, killing an unknown number of people.

Days later, Australians watched a live television broadcast in which the prime minister delivered a tearful tribute to the students involved in the Tiananmen uprising.

Immediately afterwards, he announced that Chinese students would be allowed to remain in Australia.

A tearful speech

In Hawke’s emotional speech, he described the details of the crackdown that horrified the world.
“When all those who had not managed to get away were either dead or wounded, foot soldiers went through the square, bayoneting or shooting anybody who was still alive,” the former Australian prime minister said through tears.
“Tanks then ran backwards and forwards over the bodies of the slain, until they were reduced to pulp.

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

This speech has become a fixture of Australian media coverage of the event, particularly following Hawke’s death in 2019.
In the years following, Chinese students who were able to remain in Australia said they were “grateful and labelled Hawke as a “tender-hearted” and “generous” leader.
One of the groups of Chinese students who in 2019 was James Pan, who said the former prime minister “decided my fate”.

Over the decades in mainland China, mentions of the Tiananmen Square crackdown has been taboo and the topic has been heavily censored.

image (8).png

A sea of student protesters gathers in Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1989. Credit: Corbis Historical

It is also rare for Chinese authorities to acknowledge the incident.

On one of these rare occasions, in 2019, former Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe stated that China’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square was a “correct policy” decision, citing the country’s “stability” since then.
As a descendant of the “Tiananmen generation”, Meng said her life would be “completely different” if she had stayed in China.
“I was born in Guizhou province as a girl, which is the poorest province in China,” she said.
A writer and a researcher, she said, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have now [if I stayed in China]”.

“It’s because of the students and their bravery that I was actually able to be here [in Australia] in the first place.”

China Tiananmen Photo Gallery

Meng said that her life would be ‘completely different’ without the month-long student protests in China in 1989. Credit: AP

Meng’s views of the asylum offer were echoed by Tandee Wang, whose parents stayed in Australia as part of the Hawke initiative.

The Australian National University (ANU) graduate and history scholar at the University of California pointed out that Hawke “did not unilaterally” grant asylum to Chinese students.
Rather, the students had been given visa extensions prior to Hawke’s speech and were not granted permanent residency until November 1993 under the Paul Keating-led government.
“When the Tiananmen generation were given permanent residency, they were described as ‘mainly young and skilled, with high labour force participation and relatively little reliance on welfare’,” he said.
“While it is important to recognise these economic credentials, it must also be acknowledged that these characterisations co-existed with accusations that the Chinese were essentially fake refugees trying to abuse the Australian immigration system.

“Centering [on] Hawke’s tears can, advertently or inadvertently, cover up this much less celebratory story.”


4 June, the anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, is a sensitive day in mainland China. Credit: MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

John Howard, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, voiced concern about the broad asylum offer, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between genuine refugees and those who might be exploiting the situation for economic reasons.

“We must ensure that those who are granted asylum are genuine refugees, truly fleeing persecution, and not individuals taking advantage of the situation for economic or other reasons,” Howard had said at the time.

‘It can be too painful’

Meng said although her family had left China 35 years ago, the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on them persisted.
“Our family values and rules reflected what the CCP’s values and rules were,” she said.
“We always had to portray an example of a successful immigrant family, just like that the CCP always has to portray a good successful economic portrait of China.”
Until today, the Tiananmen massacre remains a taboo topic in Meng’s family.

“My father and I never talked about Tiananmen Square. It’s not something that he brought up,” she said.

It’s similar to how many people process trauma. It can be too painful.


Meng’s father also advised her not to mention it.
“We still have a lot of family members in China, and the current crackdowns on all kinds of dissidents means that you never know what might happen if you speak out,” she said.
“Self-censorship is how Chinese people survived thousands of years of history and continue to survive.

* name changed to protect identity.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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