Ling Xie, Maree Ma's mother, on a beach in Sydney in the 1980s [Maree Ma/Al Jazeera]

 Six days after the event now known as the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, Bob Hawke, the then-prime minister of Australia, addressed a memorial service at the national parliament in Canberra.

With some 500 Chinese students present, a teary Hawke told the crowd that “thousands have been killed, victims of a leadership that seems determined to hang on to the reins of power at any cost. An awful human cost.

“[Chinese troops] had orders that nobody in the square be spared, and children … young girls were slaughtered as mercilessly as the many wounded soldiers from other units there,” he said in a speech now immortalised in Australia’s political history.

“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 flame throwers.”

 While human rights groups estimate that hundreds or even thousands of students may have been killed in the crackdown against the pro-democracy protests, China has never provided a death toll.

Speaking at a major security summit in Singapore on Sunday, China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said the protests were “political turmoil that the central government needed to quell, which was the correct policy.

“Due to this, China has enjoyed stability, and if you visit China you can understand that part of history,” he told attendants at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

File photo of a man standing in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square in Beijing

‘Grateful to Hawke’

Hawke, who passed away on May 16 just weeks before the 30th anniversary of the massacre, made the unilateral decision in 1989 to let the 27,000 Chinese students present in Australia stay.

His government would then go on to grant a total of 42,000 permanent visas for Chinese students.

For Frank Bongiorno, a historian at the Australian National University, Hawke’s decision “came out of a sense of great disappointment in the Chinese leadership, because he’d emphasised friendly relations with China”, as well as “his image of Australia as a compassionate society”.

Chinese students began to enter Australia in the early 1970s, after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam established diplomatic relations with communist China.

Maree Ma’s mother, Ling Xie, was one of them, coming to Sydney in the 1980s to study English.

“She’d gone through the Cultural Revolution in China, so she really wanted to get out anyway … but I think when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened it really shocked everyone,” Ma said.

Ma and her father were still in China in June 1989. They would not be reunited with her mother until 1993, when Ma was eight years old. Xie needed to work three jobs to provide for her family, but always remained grateful to Hawke for offering a safer life for her family.

“He’s always been this figure that’s been talked about in the family that really did something incredible,” Ma said. “I think most Chinese that stayed because of his visa extension, they would be very, very grateful to him.”

Ma is now the general manager of Vision Times, an independent, Chinese-language publisher which releases newspapers in five Australian cities and several online platforms. It is one of the only local Chinese publications not owned by figures associated with the Communist Party.

“Mum says the thing she wishes for me to do is to give back to this country, just like this country has given us so much as a family,” Ma said.

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