Tiananmen Square and an Australian family

More than three decades ago in the spring of 1989, Chinese military tanks rolled toward Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and troops opened fire on the crowds, crushing the country's largest pro-democracy protests.

Zheng Tianci heard the sound of shelling less than 2 kilometres away from his hotel building and ran out onto the street with his bicycle, pedalling furiously toward the gunfire.

Born in south-western China, Mr Zheng was at that time a well-known political critic writing for Hong Kong newspapers, and the co-founder of the Chinese Alliance for Human Rights.

During that unforgettable night in the centre of Beijing, he watched as soldiers fired their automatic weapons directly at the crowd that he was in.

"When I witnessed scenes of injured students firsthand, I knew the massacre had started," Mr Zheng, 72, told the ABC.

"Soldiers in helmets holding automatic guns … they shoot at the crowd directly after firing warning shots."

The brutal crackdown against the 1989 Democracy Movement was a turning point, signalling not only an end to free protests in contemporary Chinese history, but also the beginning of life in exile for many high-profile participants, including Mr Zheng.

Thirty-one years on, the stories of the more than a million students who took part in the demonstrations and their demands for democratic reform — now labelled a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" in China — have been successfully erased from the memories of many of Chinese citizens.

However, for the Zheng family, who moved to Canberra in 1993, their memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre involve not only Government savagery, but also a lengthy separation from their youngest family member.

They fled to Australia, but had to leave their toddler behind

Two men having handshake in a temple.
Mr Zheng was invited to celebrate the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday in 2015, as president of the Chinese Labour Party.(Supplied: Zheng Tianci)

On the second day of the massacre, Mr Zheng managed to take "the last flight" from Beijing to the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where he planned to meet his family in the coastal city of Shenzhen.

Their goal was to take an illegal boat trip across the bay to Hong Kong, which was at that time under British rule.

"Everyone was there, except my youngest child Niuniu," Mr Zheng said.

Due to the urgency of the situation, their three-year-old son Niuniu, who was named for his Chinese Zodiac sign — the Year of the Ox — had to be left behind with his grandparents in the remote Chinese province of Guizhou.

Niuniu had been living there while the Zhengs set up a business in Guangdong. They were able to bring their daughter, who was a bit older than Niuniu, and was living with them in the southern province.

"People on the boat told us no matter who came onto the boat, we should tell them that we paid to smuggle ourselves to Hong Kong," Mr Zheng remembered of his last moments in China.

With help from friends in Hong Kong, the family were able to hide in an apartment in the city until their friends directed them to a large Taiwanese cargo ship in early July.

They lived in exile in Taiwan for a short period of time, moving to a few other countries before finally arriving in Australia, where they were granted protection visas in 1993.

The family tried "all kinds of ways" to bring Niuniu to Australia, but nothing worked.

They believed Mr Zheng's participation in the Tiananmen Square protests was the reason why they couldn't get authorities to issue Niuniu a passport, allowing him to leave China.

"[My parents] said, 'oh, your brother is coming' but then the hope was gone … They tried and failed, and tried and failed again," Mr Zheng's daughter Helen said.

"It was very like a rollercoaster kind of thing," she said.

'My tremendous appreciation to Mr John Howard's help'

Two man and a woman smiling in a Canberra resturant
Mr Zheng and his wife ran a restaurant in Canberra that was popular among politicians.(Supplied: Zheng Tianci)

Mr Zheng said the family was able to have 10-minute chats on the phone with Niuniu every month — a precious monthly event, allowing them to hear each other's voice after years separated.

"Dad always said that he was fine, and mum was always crying whenever she missed my brother," Helen said.

Mr Zheng bought the Tang Dynasty restaurant in Canberra in 1996 when Niuniu was nearly 10 years old. The restaurant used to be popular among politicians.

Mr Zheng said he would never forget the day in 1997 when the then-prime minister John Howard went to his restaurant, prior to his first official trip to China.

The father said he went to Mr Howard and asked the prime minister's help passing a letter to China's leadership, in which Mr Zheng demanded authorities to "release his child from Guizhou province to Australia".

Mr Zheng said the Howard government made a big effort for his family's reunion, though the letter didn't impress the Chinese authorities, as Niuniu still couldn't get his passport to travel.

Mr Howard told the ABC that "it was likely he did receive the letter and passed it on" — as he would often do when he felt "the person was genuine" — though he couldn't recall this specific case.

A family of four, including the father, mother, sister and younger brother standing in front of a piece of aboriginal art in NSW
Niuniu (second from left) finally met his family in Sydney in 1998, when he was 13.(Supplied: Zheng Tianci)

On December 15, 1998, Niuniu finally arrived at Sydney airport and met his family after almost a decade of separation.

Older sister Helen remembered that touching moment when her parents didn't have to cry in fear anymore.

"He was very shy at the time when he met [us] at Sydney airport, because we all looked different at that time," she said.

"Mum said 'this is your sister', and he was staring at me and couldn't believe it … [but] gave me a kiss that I can still remember."

The ABC has contacted DFAT and the Australian ambassador at the time, Richard Smith, for comment.

Decades later, some families are still separated

Members of the group Tiananmen Mothers hold up photos of their loved ones, who were killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre
Tiananmen Mothers, an association for relatives of those killed in the massacre, are still demanding justice from Beijing.(Supplied: Human Rights In China)

Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who sensationally defected to Australia in 2005, told the ABC he was familiar with Mr Zheng's story.

He said it was "very normal" for Beijing to restrict the freedom of movement of Tiananmen Square protesters and their family members.

Mr Chen joined China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1991 and served as a junior officer in the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, which monitors activities in countries that many Chinese dissidents resided in, including the United States and Australia.

"Chinese authorities took that kind of restrictive measures, and used them as punishment," he said.

To this day, the mothers of some of the students killed in the massacre are still placed under close monitoring and banned from marking the anniversary publicly.

In an open letter that the ABC has obtained via the New York and Hong Kong-based NGO Human Rights in China, a group of 124 mothers of Tiananmen Square victims is continuing to demand justice from the Government for those killed on June 4, 1989.

"With the passage of time, 60 people among our group of victims' families have passed away," the statement said.

"Time can erase our lives, but our group's resolve in the pursuit of fairness and justice will not alter."

The parents of some active dissidents have also to this day been unable to see their children, who fled China after the massacre.

A photo of Mr Wu'er, he has a goatee beard and is wearing a grey linen shirt.
Mr Wu'er, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen student uprising, is still unable to reunite with his elderly parents from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.(ABC: Four Corners)

Wu'er Kaixi, a prominent Uyghur student leader who took part in the Tiananmen Square protests, said his parents have been banned from travelling overseas to reunite with him.

Mr Wu'er was 21 when he left China for Taiwan — he's now 52.

He believes his activism is to blame: he famously interrupted the then-Chinese premier Li Peng during a televised meeting between officials and protest leaders before the massacre.

"To me, I could accept that it was a punishment for my peaceful protest," Mr Wu'er said.

"But the restrictive actions that Beijing took to stop my parents from going overseas are primitive and savage."

Mr Zheng said Niuniu was "completely immersed" in Australia's culture after their reunion.

A family of four, including the parents and two children were smiling in front of the Sydney Opera House
One month after their reunion, Niuniu quickly adapted to life in Australia with his family.(Supplied: Zheng Tianci)

His wife, who said she had suffered from nightmares during their separation where she imagined Niuniu was begging her to come to Australia, was also relieved to have her family all together again.

But for Mr Zheng, the worst nightmare was what he saw on the streets of Beijing that night in 1989.

"Some Chinese politicians believed they could wipe out the collective memory of the massacre," he said.

"But we know they cannot."

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