Shen met Mr Hawke in 2007 when his self-portrait was awarded the people’s choice prize at the S.H. Ervin gallery. “It was a very important moment for me,” he says. “I said: I am your student, we are all your students. He was very happy for that.”
More than 40,000 Chinese were eventually granted visas to stay in Australia as a result of Mr Hawke’s intervention, including partners and family members. While an instinctive response to an unfolding horror, the decision complemented the Hawke government’s broader agenda of opening Australia to the world.
But it was Mr Hawke’s speech a week earlier, five days after the June 4 massacre, that stays with Chinese Australians to this day. Weeping, he read from a diplomatic cable detailing the carnage inflicted on thousands of protesting students at the hands of Beijing’s troops.
“They had orders that nobody in the square be spared, and children and young girls were slaughtered as mercilessly as the many wounded soldiers from other units there,” he said.
“Personnel carriers and 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 flamethrowers.”
Mr Hawke also honoured “indescribable acts of bravery”, including the unknown man who famously stood in front of a convoy of tanks as they left the square the next morning.
These young people confronted their government’s troops “not in anger but in disbelief that an army could unleash force on its own people with such cruelty,” Mr Hawke said.
Years later, upon the release of the relevant cabinet documents, he told The Guardian his decision to let the Chinese students stay in Australia was one of instinct.
“It’s called leadership,” he said. “I had no consultation with anyone and when I walked off the dais I was told ‘you cannot do that, prime minister’. I said to them ‘I just did, it is done’.”
The legacy of that moment is all around. Economics lecturer Ai-Ling Zhou is another of Mr Hawke’s “students” who went on to raise a family in Australia after being granted asylum.
She was 25 and studying English in Sydney when the prime minister made a decision that would change her life forever. Now 55, she still vividly recalls Mr Hawke’s tearful speech.
“It was such a surprise because I had never seen a politician crying on TV,” she says. “It also showed the West cared about human life in China. It was just a great moment of humanity.”
Ms Zhou and her friends have been circulating articles about Mr Hawke on WeChat since his death. More than anything, they thank him for backing up his words with action.
“He let us stay,” she says. “A politician could have said a lot of things – but what people remember most are the things he did that upheld humanity, to let humanity shine.”
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.