Tuesday 20 August 2019

Obituary: Li Peng

Chinese leader who became known as the 'Butcher of Tiananmen'

Blood on the streets: Main photo: 'Tank Man' in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, 1989. Inset, Li Peng.
Blood on the streets: Main photo: 'Tank Man' in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, 1989. Inset, Li Peng.

Li Peng, who died last Monday aged 90, served as China's premier between 1987 and 1998; he became known as "the Butcher of Beijing", or "the Butcher of Tiananmen", for his role in the infamous crackdown on dissidents in 1989 in which hundreds of people, probably thousands, were killed by state forces.

In his diaries - which were eventually published in 2010 - Li attempted to minimise his part in the massacre, and to shift the blame on to China's leader Deng Xiaoping, who, he claimed, had taken the decision to impose martial law and send in the army to clear the square.

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Li maintained that he himself had only supported the crackdown because he was afraid that the pro-democracy protests might spill over into endemic civil disorder. Violent repression, he claimed, had been necessary to prevent "a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution". But his post hoc rationalisations failed to convince.

He had been elected premier in 1988, following several years of social unrest.

There had been much debate within the Communist party about the advisability of economic and political reforms, as China began to look outwards and think about taking its place in the global financial system; Li was firmly in the traditionalist camp, fearing that too much change too quickly would undermine the party's authority.

He was born Li Yuanpeng on October 20, 1928, in the Shanghai French Concession.

His father, Li Shuoxun, had been an early member of the Communist Party who was executed by the Kuomintang and later hailed as a revolutionary martyr.

When he was 11 Li met Deng Yingchao; she took him to meet her husband, Zhou Enlai, who would go on to become China's first premier.

The couple effectively adopted Li, and in 1945 he joined the Communist Party.

He served in various capacities in the country's power industry, surviving the depredations of the Cultural Revolution thanks partly to his position as head of the powerful Beijing Electric Power Administration.

Li's political star rose rapidly when Deng Xiaoping came to power and, heavily backed by a party elder, Chen Yun, he joined the central committee in 1982, was made education minister in 1985, and was elected to the Politburo and the Party Secretariat. In 1987 he became a member of the powerful standing committee, and in November that year, when Zhao Ziyang was promoted to general secretary, Li became premier, being elected formally in 1988.

Although the Tiananmen massacre was an unmitigated disaster in terms of China's world standing, Li survived - partly, it is thought, because punishing him would have meant admitting that it had been a mistake.

After he suffered a heart attack in 1993, his power began to wane, until his second term of office ended in 1998, when he took on the largely symbolic role of Chairman of the National People's Congress (a post he held until 2003).

Li Peng married Zhu Lin, who survives him, along with their three children, two of whom went on to manage power companies.


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