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Bob Hawke's post Tiananmen legacy

  • 30 May 2019


On 9 June 1989, then prime minister Bob Hawke addressed a memorial gathering in Canberra. This was just days after People's Liberation Army troops in Beijing were ordered to use force against their fellow citizens.

'For more than a month now, the eyes of the world have been on China,' he said. 'We were inspired by the idealism and courage of youth, the peaceful determination of students to create a better future, and the support that rallied around their cause from throughout Chinese society.

'Our spirits were buoyed by the optimism of their vision and, no matter how far we were from the events in Tiananmen Square, our hearts were with them. Then last weekend, our optimism was shattered as we watched in horror the unyielding forces of repression brutally killing the vision of youth.'

His empathetic outpouring of grief at the state-sanctioned violence was accompanied by a captain's call beyond all others when he decreed that Chinese students in Australia, as well as their families, would be able to obtain permanent visas. Some 42,000 took up the offer and in the process constituted the largest Chinese migration to Australian since the time of the 19th-century gold rushes. By way of contrast, in 1992 around 80,000 Chinese received June 4 Green Cards when the US Congress passed the Chinese Students Protection Act.

Over the next 30 years, this June 4 generation and their children have come to exert a quiet, significant influence on Australian contemporary society. As one example, our art world has been the recipient of contributions from artists like Guan Wei, Ah Xian, Shen Jiawei and Xiao Lu. One of these, Guan Wei, won the Archibald Prize in 2016, while Shen Jiawei has been an Archibald finalist 14 times as well as a winner of the John Sulman Prize in 2006.

Like many of their contemporaries, most of these artists are now also Australian citizens and work in that liminal zone of cross-cultural exchange, often reflecting on being at once a foreigner and a local in both worlds.

The June 4 generation also brought about changes in the societal fabric of many of our cities, moving into suburbs such as Ashfield in Sydney and Box Hill in Melbourne, and transforming them into vibrant hubs of Chinese culture and cuisine and a decidedly non-English streetscape. In turn these locales attracted other Asian cultures as well. Likewise, linguistically, the steady rise of Chinese immigration has now