Former prime minister Bob Hawke’s tearful and unilateral offer of asylum to Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre has become a common fixture in Australian media accounts of that event, especially since his death in 2019. Widely praised as an example of Hawke’s exemplary leadership, this popular story not only reinforces Hawke’s own political legacy, but also supports a national narrative of Australia as a generous and welcoming place for outsiders of all cultures. But like many political myths and self-serving national stories, this account has only a tenuous relationship to historical evidence.
It is true that Hawke publicly wept at a memorial on 9 June 1989 for those who died at Tiananmen. But there is no evidence that he offered the Chinese asylum in this speech. By 9 June, all nationals of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Australia had already been given two-month extensions on their visas. Moreover, Hawke offered a further visa extension of twelve months only after he was publicly called upon by the opposition leader Andrew Peacock to do so. It would not be until November 1993, under the prime ministership of Paul Keating, that this group of PRC nationals was given permanent residency.
There is also no substantial historical evidence to suggest that Hawke’s decision was done without consultation, except Hawke’s own testimony (although it should be noted that by the early 1990s, politicians were already blaming Hawke’s supposed emotional unilateralism for the immigration situation Australia found itself in). Contrary to journalist Gabrielle Chan’s account, however, Cabinet Papers do not confirm that Hawke’s decision was unilateral.
Nor was the later decision in 1990 to further extend the Chinese students’ stay by providing four-year temporary entry permits (TEPs) unilateral either. That decision was considered by the Cabinet and jointly announced by the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister.
This might seem nit-picky. Hawke did cry and the Chinese did stay—so what, after all, is so wrong with how we tell this compelling story?
One problem is that the narrative of Hawke’s Tiananmen tears reinforces a conception of Australia’s unimpeachable generosity and benevolence that is at odds with the evidence at hand. Throughout the period that the Australian government considered its response to PRC nationals in Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, they simultaneously began instituting policies to make migration and asylum seeking tougher.
One decision in this vein was the choice to cease the provision of permanent residency to successful onshore asylum claimants and provide four-year temporary entry permits (TEPs) instead. The aim of this policy was to mitigate the incentive of those who made spurious asylum claims in the hopes of illegitimately staying in Australia. One journalist for The Australian on 28 June 1990 summarised well the highly qualified mode of generosity on offer: Australia ‘wants to be seen as tough—a refuge not a palace’.
Another decision, concurrent with the Chinese student issue, related to the arrival of a number of boats starting in November 1989 carrying asylum seekers from Cambodia, about whom Hawke was notably less sympathetic. In one June 1990 interview on A Current Affair, Hawke dismissed the boat arrivals as motivated by ‘economic refugeeism’, even as he suggested blanket protection for the Chinese in the same interview—an inconsistent application of sympathy that was not lost on the media.
More significantly, in 1992, while the status of Chinese students had not yet been finally resolved, the Keating government legislated mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat, which remains to this day a central part of Australia’s internationally-condemned refugee regime. We can only speculate about the exact causal relationship between the presence of the Tiananmen Chinese in Australia and the decision to institute mandatory detention—although the dramatic increase in asylum claims to Australia (many by the Chinese) was an explicit consideration in the government’s decision. What is clear, however, is that at the same moment that Australia was considering its inclusion of PRC nationals, it was also shutting itself off to others.
This is one of the shadow stories to Hawke’s Tiananmen tears. It is a story about closing and restricting, not opening and embracing. And it is one that is readily evident in the political and administrative documentary record, despite its absence in our public political mythology.
The evidence of Australia’s immigration restriction also joins another shadow story, one which I began to uncover when I conducted oral history interviews with Chinese people who were here at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and their descendants. This story is a richly complex one, often centred on themes of struggle, hard work and accomplishment, both in Mao’s China and Hawke’s Australia. And it is a story in which, by the telling of the Tiananmen Chinese and their children, Hawke’s tears and decision featured as only a small part.
We too often represent Tiananmen, and the contemporary Chinese diaspora more broadly, as an issue of states and statesmen—a story about nations and their contestations. We talk about these Huaren as Hawke-ren, forgetting the rich dimensions of Chinese migrant lives except as passive recipients of (Australian) state beneficence or (Chinese) state violence.
But the story of the Chinese diaspora caught up in the Tiananmen Square massacre is as much a national one as it is global and transnational, familial and personal. In this respect, we would do well to move beyond Hawke’s Tiananmen tears.