The Chinese Student Issue of 1989

A few days after the June 4 incident, the Australian government published figures showing that 15,405 Chinese nationals lived in Australia on June 4,1989 (Birrell 1994; Jupp 1991). Australia decided to join several Western countries to offer temporary protection to Chinese nationals, who were given temporary protection visas several times a year after that (Cronin 1993; Gao 2013). However, the number of Chinese nationals in need of Australia’s protection increased significantly because none of the ELICOS colleges wanted to refund the tuition fees that thousands of Chinese students had already paid, though they had not yet arrived in Australia by June 4, 1989. To help ELICOS colleges keep the money, as well as the job opportunities for thousands of Australians, the Australian government made a number of changes to tighten the screening procedures for visa applications and allow more than 25,000 Chinese students to come to Australia to start courses a few months after the June 4 incident. These late arrivals were called the “post-20 June [1989] group” and their number was considerably larger than that of the “pre-20 June group.” The pressure from the small but growing education export industry gave the impression that Australia could further open up its border to Chinese if other sectors required a similar policy response.

The June 4 incident changed the nature of the “tide of going abroad” and turned the great majority of Chinese students studying overseas in the late 1980s and early 1990s into a new generation of Chinese migrants. In the course of dealing with the Chinese-student issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Australian government had three ministers look after the immigration department. Gerry Hand, representing the left faction of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), once used the number of students and the low level of their qualifications to argue against a blanket approach to handling the student issue. He was “dumped” soon after making the comment on the grounds that it might weaken the ALP’s “ethnic” support. However, Hand’s successor, Nick Bolkus, publicly praised the Chinese students as an enormously talented group (Gao 2015). He later recalled that his department carefully went through the profiles of these students, and discovered that “we had within our shores some of the creme of young China” (Bourke 2009: 1).

The policies and actions of the Australian government in response to the Chinese student issue, and the students’ demand to stay permanently in Australia, were contradictory, dictated by both national interests and humanitarian concerns. The students were allowed to stay permanently as a result of the so-called “1 November [1993] decisions” made by the Paul Keating Labor government. The decisions honored a promise made by the previous Labor prime minister, Bob Hawke, that none of the Chinese students would be forced to return to China against their will. In addition to the students who were allowed to stay under these decisions, about 4000-5000 did not meet the criteria for residency. Fortunately for them, Australia was a rather different place by the mid-1990s. After the federal election in March 1996, the newly elected Liberal-National Coalition government abandoned the tough stance on the Chinese-student issue and adopted a more pragmatic approach to solving the problem left unsolved by the 1993 decisions.

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