Former Chinese premier Li Peng, who was known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in 1989’s notorious Tiananmen Square massacre, who had previously been treated for bladder cancer, died of an unspecified illness in Beijing aged 90, state media reported.
Li became a despised symbol of repression after gaining global notoriety for the role he played in the crackdown on mass pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital Beijing on June 4, 1989, and stayed at the top of the Communist regime hierarchy for more than a decade after the massacre.
On May 19, 1989, then-Chinese Premier Li Peng, a newly-installed standing member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, declared in murderous tones a State Council curfew order, leading to the People’s Liberation Army’s brutal crackdown on student protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Li proclaimed martial law on May 20, 1989, after massive crowds of students, workers and others camped for weeks in Tiananmen Square to demand reform. Two weeks later, in the early hours of June 4, the military put a bloody end to the demonstrations, murdering hundreds of unarmed civilians, by some estimates more than 1,000.
The decision to send in the troops was made collectively, but Li was widely held responsible for the atrocity. In the years that followed, Li often defended the decision to open fire on the protesters as a “necessary” step. “Without these measures China would have faced a situation worse than in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe,” he said on a tour of Austria in 1994.
As Li was dying in early June of 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, authorities made extra efforts to make sure he would not take his last breath in that sensitive month. In China’s official obituary, issued a day after his death, he was hailed for his rock-ribbed “loyalty and decisive role” in quelling the 1989 student unrest.
“Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Comrade Li adopted resolute measures to end the anti-revolutionary riot and stabilized the situation, in his key role in quashing the unrest that determined the upshot of the entire struggle and the future of the party and the state,” read the obituary.
The “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China,” a political entity that hosts the annual “candle lit vigil” for the victims of Tiananmen, called Li a “sinner for a thousand years” in its statement.
Albert Ho, the alliance’s leader who is also a prominent pro-democracy politician in the city, said Li fed party patriarch Deng false information about the students’ “sit-in” at Tiananmen Square in his bid to wrestle more power in the party’s factional schism and ease out the party’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic towards the students throughout the protests.
“Li maligned the students, who demanded rule of law, clean governance and democracy, as rioters and traitors of the state, inflaming Deng’s fear of losing his grip on the nation and ultimately leading to Deng’s edicts to send in troops to slay protesters and clear the square,” according to Ho.
Other observers say Li can hardly absolve himself of the blame since he was more than a mere executor of Deng’s orders, as he was heavily involved in Deng’s strategizing for a sharp-elbow approach.
During Li’s premiership that ended in 1998, China’s nascent social movement and democratic reforms that emerged in the early 1980s were squelched, and he and then-president Jiang Zemin opted to spur economic development and market liberalization to put China on the mend.
Li made a bid to exonerate himself and sought to publish a “memoir” about the Tiananmen incident, only to be dissuaded by the party’s top leadership. His unpublished book hinted that it was the arbitrary Deng who mandated the killings and that he had clean hands throughout the matter.
Despite his notoriety, Li remained unchallenged as China’s number two leader through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, second only to then-president Jiang Zemin, as the ruling Communist Party tried to present a united front.
However, Li’s preference for state control over market forces in running the economy led to him losing influence as premier to his lieutenant Zhu Rongji, handpicked by Deng Xiaoping to revive stalled economic reforms and market liberalization.
After Li, who was trained as an engineer in the Soviet Union, had a heart attack in 1993, Zhu gradually assumed more responsibility for the country’s economic policies and eventually took over from Li as premier in 1998.
However, Li retained his number two rank within the party hierarchy, moving to the “National People’s Congress”, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and presiding over the legislature until he retired in 2003.
Other than Tiananmen, Li is also known for his family’s wheeling and dealing with the nation’s power and electricity conglomerates, as well as the high-flying lifestyle of his scions.
Li, groomed in the Soviet Union and majored in hydro-power generation, bulldozed the Three Gorges project through the NPC to dam and harness the Yangtze River despite rare, widespread concerns among lawmakers and engineers about the project’s safety and environmental and social impact.
He is also accused of cronyism when appointing senior executives to major state-owned power generators in his capacity as electricity minister and then premier.
His son Li Xiaopeng was the general manager of the state-owned electricity utility enterprise “China Huaneng Group” and governor of the resource-rich central Shanxi province and is now China’s minister of transportation.
Li’s daughter Li Xiaolin, aka “China’s electricity queen,” who has a penchant for expensive fur coats, jewelry and handbags as well as dancing the “cha-cha-chá,” was also a talking point when she was at the helm of “China Power Investment Corp.”
Li Xiaolin was demoted to another power company and offered to retire amid rumors that she opted to bow out of the electricity industry as Xi Jinping aimed to short-circuit an investigation and trial to nab “bigger tigers” in his graft-busting campaign.