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Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square: Measuring ourselves against the benchmark of June, 1989

By Michael Shoebridge

How far we have come since June 9, 1989.

Last week was the 30th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's deliberate use of the People's Liberation Army to massacre thousands of its own people in the heart of Beijing and in other places across China.

On 9 June, 1989, then prime minister Bob Hawke spoke emotionally and powerfully as he offered refuge, through more than 20,000 humanitarian visas, to Chinese students studying in Australia at the time of the massacre.

He spoke clearly and directly to these Chinese students, to the Chinese regime that had conducted the massacre and to the world. He brought the Australian people along with his thinking, his human emotion and empathy - and the government's decisions flowed from this.

Some of the key lines he spoke then are here:

"Unarmed young men and women were sprayed with bullets and crushed by tanks. Innocent people were shot and beaten in the streets and in their homes."

"Young people confronting lines of armed troops, not in anger, but in disbelief that an army could unleash force on its own people with such cruelty. Thousands have been killed and injured, victims of a leadership that seems determined to hang on to the reins of power at any cost - at awful human cost."

"It is my sincere hope, and, indeed, my resolute conviction, that the values and aspirations of those who have been so brutally repressed over the past week will eventually triumph, that the death and suffering will not have been in vain, that the path of reform and modernisation will be renewed."

"I call on the Chinese Government to withdraw its troops from deployment against unarmed civilians, and to respect the will of its people. To crush the spirit and body of youth is to crush the very future of China itself."

Now, 30 years on, how do our current statements from our political leaders and the actions of Australian authorities over the last week stack up against this benchmark?

Not well. Is that because Tiananmen no longer matters?

No - the regime that turned its army on its own people is not only still in power, but is now embracing those actions on the world stage (while hiding them from its own citizens within China itself).

Chinese Defence Minister and PLA General Wei chose June 2 to get on the front foot and "own" the regime's decision to massacre its own people as "correct policy" - the implication being that he would do so again if the Chinese Communist party deemed it necessary "to stop turbulence".

And, to show their own people that there is no stain on the CCP's engagement with the world, last week seemed the perfect time for the PLA to visit Sydney Harbour.

Looked at through the eyes of the propaganda folk working for China's senior leadership, this visit showed the world that the PLA would be welcomed with smiles -and with silence about their actions 30 years ago that changed the lives of thousands of Chinese Australians, some of whom no doubt watched the vessels sail down the harbour. Silence even about the events of only a couple of weeks ago which saw Australian Defence Force helicopter pilots "lasered" by what is almost certain to be Chinese fishing vessels for having the gall to be in international waters in the South China Sea.

In fact, the most visible "protest" about the PLA ships' visit during this controversial anniversary was a welcoming gathering, characterised by the Chinese media as a "spontaneous" demonstration of support for the Chinese military. Given the large purpose-printed banners being waved around, this spontaneity seems to have been carefully planned and supported by the Chinese Consulate in Sydney.

But that's only the formal Chinese government side of events. Surely the Australian government and opposition understood the significance of the 30th anniversary and would have understood the symbolism of the PLA visit?

You be the judge. Here is the statement, in full, of Foreign Minister Payne:

"Thirty years ago in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, peaceful student protests were ended using military force. Australia joins the international community in remembering the tragic loss of life on 4 June 1989.

Australia remains concerned about continuing constraints on freedom of association, expression and political participation in China."

The statement of the Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, was a little longer, but this excerpt shows some very careful wordsmithing about the massacre:

"Today is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. It was a brutal and tragic event. It will always be remembered.

We recognise this is a particularly difficult time for many in the Australian Chinese community."

You'll note that, unlike Bob Hawke's crystal clear words, neither of our current political leaders in roles where they can and should speak clearly about these events and policies mentions the uncomfortable truth that this brutal massacre was a deliberate act of the Chinese Communist Party.

And neither condemns - or even mentions - the active embracing of this brutal act by the current leaders of the Chinese state, in the person of the Chinese Defence Minister on June 2.

Of course, given this, neither connected the goodwill visit of the PLA Navy to the striking lack of goodwill shown to the Royal Australian Navy in the South China Sea a few weeks ago.

It's hard to know how we have reached this point in Australian public and political life...

It's hard to know how we have reached this point in Australian public and political life where the most manifest things simply are not being acknowledged by our political leadership.

Because it doesn't need to be the case that Australia's political leaders censor themselves when talking about the Chinese state and its use of power in ways that directly conflict with Australian national interests - and values.

It seems any public voice about Tiananmen and its relevance to our engagement with the regime led by President Xi is left to journalists and to protesters, many of Chinese descent, in different parts of Australia.

Like the lonely Chinese Australian who had the courage to stop outside the Sydney naval base where the PLA warships were docked to unfurl a Tiananmen commemorative banner, only to be ushered away by Australian officials saying they were from the federal police.

Maybe our current leadership can draw inspiration for our future policy towards President Xi's regime from some other words of Bob Hawke's, on June 9, 1989: "We all pray that moderation will eventually prevail, so that a new and better China can rise from this carnage, a China that befits the courage and determination of its people."

That new and better China can still come into being. It is not one where the Defence Minister can embrace his military's massacre of its own people in the interests of power, "stability and development".

Given all this, how would we act as a nation - and a government - were General Wei to order his military to again act against "turbulence" by citizens of China and take the "correct line" the PLA did on June 4, 1989? 

It's time for our country's political leadership to catch up and speak up.

The Australian public are now well ahead of the government and the opposition on China policy. They understand the nature of the Chinese regime led by President Xi and Defence Minister General Wei. It's time for our country's political leadership to catch up and speak up.

Originally published by: The Canberra Times on 11 Jun 2019