This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also known euphemistically as the June Fourth Incident or in Chinese, simply, 六四 [June Fourth]. Thirty years ago, a large series of student-led protests in Beijing and Shanghai, which had been growing since the mid-1980s, were suppressed when the government declared martial law and sent in armed troops to disperse the crowds.
In the UK, contemporary discussion of the impact of the 1989 Democracy Movement and the suppression of the Tiananmen protests has largely been reserved to academic discussions seeking to situate June Fourth in a broader post-Cold War, geopolitical context, or to media polemics using Tiananmen as a shorthand to demonize the Chinese government. There has been little research on the effects of 1989 on the migration trajectories and histories of people who now constitute part of the British Chinese community.
A look at the archives reveals that the background of the Cold War and the fear of the rise of China informed the treatment of the British state of Chinese students in 1989. At the time, there were approximately 3000 Chinese national students and academics resident in the UK. These students differed from the Cantonese seamen who were recruited by British mariners to supplement labour shortages and undertake dangerous convoy duties in the early 20th century, and from the working-class people who had left the periphery of British colonial rule – Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia – to carve out a better life in the metropole in the 1950s, and who were funneled into careers opening laundromats and restaurants. Many of these students and academics had previously held a position of some influence in a government department or a key university; most were pursuing a postgraduate qualification or undertaking a visiting fellowship abroad.
“We should be grateful if no publicity were given this contribution. We do not wish there to be any opportunity for the Chinese authorities to misunderstand our position on this matter”
After June Fourth, the predicament of these students and academics in the UK became uncertain. Some who had intended only on returning after finishing their studies realized that they might be subject to persecution upon return; others may not have intended on returning after having left China. Still others did not want to return during that particular period, but did not know whether they wanted to remain in the UK permanently. Two organizations emerged to provide these students with financial and psychological support. The Great Britain-China Scholars Emergency Fund was registered with the Charity Commission on 4th July 1989, with the objective of providing for the “relief of need amongst citizens of or persons normally resident in the People’s Republic of China who are resident or temporarily located in the United Kingdom and to provide for the advancement of education of such individuals.” In October 1989, the British government’s Overseas Development Assistance department (now known as the DFID, the Department for International Development) granted a £50,000 sum to the Fund; in 1991, it provided a further £14,500 for emergency payments to relieve hardship among Chinese Students. Then, in 1990, the World University Service (WUS), an affiliate of the International World University Service, made a proposal to obtain funding from the Overseas Development Administration to assist Chinese students in the UK. The ODA agreed to provide a contribution of £31,000 in 1990/1991 to support counselling services to students and their dependents.
In letters to both the Emergency Fund and WUS, the British government hedged its support for the students with the following disclaimer: “We should be grateful if no publicity were given this contribution. We do not wish there to be any opportunity for the Chinese authorities to misunderstand our position on this matter”. The British government may have wanted to avoid jeopardizing its ties with the Chinese government. Interestingly, the WUS estimated that by September 1990, 418 students were granted Exceptional Leave To Remain under the Government’s policy for Chinese students, whereas only 48 were granted refugee status, 12 were granted Exceptional Leave following an asylum application, and 37 were waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Given the Cold War context, the reluctance of the British government to grant refugee status in favour of ‘exceptional leave to remain’ may be further evidence that it did not want to publicly challenge the policies of the Chinese government by granting asylum to those fleeing their consequences.
For many second-generation British Chinese people who were in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, or whose migration histories had some relationship to the event, June Fourth is not simply a date or even a historical event. It is a site of memory and negotiation of their personal identification with Chinese heritage, alongside and/or against the actions of a particular state government. Tiananmen is also a moment that keeps reappearing – images such as that of the Tank Man facing off an authoritarian government have remained central to how the West views China, leaving little room for nuance or deeper understanding.
In collaboration with Papergang Theatre, daikon spoke to three second-generation people whose families’ migration histories are related to the 1989 democracy protests and the Tianamen Massacre.
Jenny Wang, who is from Melbourne but is now living in London, told us about how her mother fled China shortly after the Tiananmen Massacre, having witnessed firsthand the state’s practices of suppression. “My mum is from Shanghai. She comes from a military background. My granddad was the head neurosurgeon of the military, and my grandma was a nurse. My mum literally saw in the family home what the Communist government kept doing. Because there was an issue with my granddad, and they were going to send my entire family out as punishment to the labour camps and stuff like that. She watched the events at Tiananmen Square unfold, and she said to me that she just thought in her mind: ‘I can’t raise a child here. Because if my child wants to speak up against the government, they should be able to.’ That was also the time that China was opening up to the West, so she thought: ‘I might as well take the opportunity and go.”
She said to me that she just thought in her mind: ‘I can’t raise a child here."
“After coming to Australia, my mum ended up keeping her head down and not worrying too much about politics. I am quite political as a person now, and everytime I try and talk to her about these things, she kind of just does the thing of saying: “Don’t be angry. You can sleep in a nice house, why are you worried about all of these other things? Just do your own thing.” Even when I talk to her now about the Australian government, she says: “You should be grateful, you’re in Australia. Don’t worry so much about it. Everything’s fine.” Because I think in her eyes the fact that she can comfortably live and do most things that she would want is good enough, and I shouldn’t get involved in politics because I have all of the opportunities that she never got.”
"I think the intergenerational trauma is definitely there for my mum. She would get really frustrated with me if I wasn’t doing what she wanted for my future. She would get really angry: “Stop getting so political, stop protesting this. Stop being so angry. Why can’t you just go to university, get a nice degree, buy a nice house, have a nice family. This is why I gave you. Why are you so rebellious?” And I guess growing up I never really understood that, but as I grew up and researched the politics and learned what my mum escaped, I began to understand why she was so frustrated with me. Because in her eyes, she gave me all these liberties, and I took them for granted in a way.”
"I will be going to China soon. I think I may make a trip to Beijing to have a look at the area, and try and learn a bit more about it. Because now I feel like it is a part of my responsibility to learn about it and try to talk to people about it in relation to immigration. I grew up with people who said: Go back to your own country. You’ve come to Australia to take Australian things. You don’t deserve to be there. I had this mindset for ages. I used to think, maybe I shouldn’t be here. But a lot of immigrants didn’t voluntarily come here as much as I thought they did. As much as I used to think it was a privilege, now I am trying to learn about migration and talk about it with people.”
Lu-Hai Liang, who grew up in Hastings from the age of five, told us about how the democracy protests and the events at Tiananmen Square shaped his family’s migration story.
“I moved to the UK when I was 5. Growing up, I think Tiananmen Square was always somewhere in the background. My parents would sometimes talk about. I always knew I was dimly aware that a very dramatic event had led us to England. And that my father did something dramatic – escaped China, went to Hong Kong, came to England. My mum, came to England via boat… I was always very proud of telling people where my parents came from and how they escaped China. For me it was something to boast about, not to hide under. The fact that my father was a democracy activist. It is a noble pursuit to stand up for your principles.”
“I think that by remembering how the democracy movement ended, that plays into the hands of the state, rather than the people who were protesting. By remembering how it was ended, you’re only perpetuating the fact of state brutality, rather than remembering the spirit of what moved it in the first place.. I think a true act of resistance would be to remember how it started, and not how it ended. It started because people saw that the CCP was corrupt, and they wanted to change it. If you can emphasize how the government is corrupt, that is something that is more powerful. No one likes corruption. Everyone has an innate sense of fairness and justice, and corruption is never a good look. In part, that was why those protests happened – because they saw a corrupt government and they wanted it to change. They wanted more agency, more power to change things. And you can only do that through being more democratic.”
Siyang Wei, from Manchester, UK, told us about their concerns about the way that the Tiananmen Square Massacre is framed in Western media.
“I think that the racialization of Chinese people in the UK and other liberal democratic states is very much linked to the shadow of the Red Scare. The only thing you’re allowed to think about China is that it is terrible, and that everything is great here. The racialization of British Chinese people has always been about the terrifying foreigner who was not born here."
"To me I feel like the Cold War never ended. At least I think there has been a massive increase in Cold War style narratives. The narrative around Tiananamen is the embodiment of what China is in the British imaginary. I have a related story: the first time I was told about China at school was when I was 7, and the entire school had this session, where the teacher read out a chapter of Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It was a bit about how the dad had a factory, and the factory was stolen from them. And there was no context to it. No introduction, no real follow-up. The purpose was to portray China as bad, and weird, and terrible."
The narrative around Tiananamen is the embodiment of what China is in the British imaginary.
"I think it would be good to focus on things that actually happened – what, specifically, the protesters wanted. What democracy meant to them. Because in the minds of people like my parents who weren’t directly involved or who had already moved out by that point and also were on board with the government, albeit not super strongly, it is not a cataclysmic or defining or iconic event, in the way that we are led to believe from how mainstream media talks about it."
"I think Tiananmen raises important questions about what we mean by democracy and the state. And we need to think about how Tiananmen is used discursively and ideologically. We need to focus on what happened on the ground. That perspective is not really given much airtime in Britain.”
Through the tireless advocacy of activists and artists, including those who were and have remained politically active in China since the 1980s, narratives of Tiananmen are being reclaimed from broader state narratives, both in China and abroad. The 30th anniversary gives us a time to center the voices of those who were there in the past, to reflect on our communities in the present.
daikon* hopes to continue collecting oral histories of people whose migration stories are related to the 1989 democracy protests and Tiananmen Square massacre. Please let us know if you would be interested in participating at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We need to focus on what happened on the ground. That perspective is not really given much airtime in Britain.