What The 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown Means For Chinese Youth In New Zealand

Published: Tue 4 Jun 2024 04:40 PM
* The people interviewed for this story all spoke on condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns. RNZ has agreed to use a pseudonym instead.
In the 35 years since the student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, an entire generation has grown up knowing very little about the pro-democracy protests in Beijing in the spring of 1989.
On 3-4 June 1989, the Chinese government sent tens of thousands of troops and armed police into Tiananmen Square to clear protestors who had occupied central Beijing as part of a democracy movement that had been gathering momentum for almost two months.
Estimates of the death toll in the crackdown vary from several hundred to several thousand, with thousands more injured.
The massacre has been commemorated in different parts of the world on 4 June each year ever since.
In New Zealand, young Chinese are exposed to more information about the 1989 protests than they would likely come across in China. Consequently, some are calling for casualties of the crackdown to be remembered.
In Auckland, a memorial boulder dedicated to victims of the crackdown sits in front of St Andrews Presbyterian Church in the city centre.
People typically attend a candlelight vigil in Auckland's Aotea Square each year, with other cities also hosting similar activities.
Mia was born in New Zealand roughly 10 years after the 1989 crackdown.
Even so, she first came across the protests at university when she was studying sociology-related subjects.
"The resounding fact for me is that it [the Tiananmen Square crackdown] is being wiped out of history within China," she said.
"It took me until my adulthood to know that it actually happened," she said. "During university, I had friends who were international Chinese students. I asked them about this, and they didn't know it had happened."
She tried to search for more information, but felt many accounts were told from a Western perspective.
Mia's parents, who migrated from China, did not express much interest in re-living the events of 1989.
She also found it hard to find information on the protests from a Chinese perspective.
"It's hard to find narratives by Chinese people," she said, noting that most of the information about the crackdown had been written from a Western perspective. "Naturally I want to find something that is being told by Chinese people, but it's difficult."
Mia said many people from her parents or grandparents' generation came to New Zealand in search of a "better life" for their children.
Politics often took a back seat as they struggled to settle down in a new environment, she said.
"A lot of diasporas are disconnected from their sense of self and their identity," she said.
"[They] want to make sure they can connect to [their roots] in some way as well as being seen and recognised in this very mixed society."
Mia felt a sense of pride to be Chinese when she participated in a rally to commemorate victims of a fire in Xinjiang as well as protest Beijing's strict Covid-19 pandemic response.
"I felt a different kind of archetype of Chinese," she said. "It sounds sad because I think the version of a Chinese citizen I grew up knowing I could be was just to move along with society and not rock the boat," she said.
"But seeing so many people being brave, appearing there in person, protesting. ... I was like, wow, they are capable of that kind of thing.
"I'm reminded by the 'tank man' photos but recently I also saw photos taken on the day of the protest of university students looking excited, happy to be there and feeling energised for being part of something. It reminds me of the fact that the desire to fight and be proud of what you believe in is innate in all of us."
She said younger generations should learn about history, calling for people to talk about difficult issues rather than avoid them.
"Any horrendous acts in history are a lesson," she said. "It does matter what these horrendous acts are."
Grace was born in China after 1989, moving to New Zealand with her parents when she was a child.
She first heard about the 1989 pro-democracy protests from her parents and read more about them later in international media.
"My understanding is that it was one of the more progressive times for China" she said. "It was more progressive and open, and people felt like they could do that. ... I think it was a very dark time."
She said a cousin of hers did not know about the crackdown until they relocated to New Zealand from China.
"It's pretty absurd that the stuff is censored," she said. "I know that China is living in its own bubble, and it's censored for a reason. If you're fortunate enough to know about it, then you should.
"It's part of history and, just like other countries who have done horrible things, they still accept it as history. It shouldn't be hidden."
Grace said many of her friends in New Zealand probably knew about the crackdown, but few would discuss it openly.
"There is nothing we can do because if someone raises awareness about it, they're essentially raising awareness about censorship by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), which no one is keen to do unless they have no ties to China."
Peter was not even five years old when the crackdown took place but learnt about the subject when he was in university in Beijing.
"The social environment at that time was very different from today," he said. "There were no taboos among students and teachers on spreading and discussing the Tiananmen incident.
"In addition, the internet did not have a strict censorship mechanism back then, so content on 'June the Fourth' could be found everywhere."
Peter moved to New Zealand from China several years ago.
He described the crackdown as a "shocking tragedy" that was "inevitable", calling it an event that "has changed China and even the course of world history".
Peter has attended a few commemorative events in Auckland in the past, as he has been curious to see people who remember the protests so far from China.
He believed that a lot of history would disappear over time and, as such, "everyone who leaves China has a mission to record and pass on priceless knowledge".
He said it was important for Chinese New Zealanders to discuss the crackdown.
"Every era has new views and understandings of historical events, so a discussion based on the context of each specific era is necessary," he said. "Discussion also helps to prevent it from being forgotten."
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