China’s former premier Li Peng, regarded as a staunch supporter of the ruling Communist Party’s iron-fisted clampdown on the pro-democracy student protests at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, died in Beijing, officials said on Tuesday.
Li died of illness in Beijing at the age of 91 on Monday night, an official statement said.
Li visited India in 2001 as the Chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, the communist nation’s Parliament.
State-run news agency Xinhua described Li as “a loyal communist warrior” and “an outstanding leader of the Communist Party and the state”. However, he is widely known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his hard-line approach to quell the 1989 protests at the Tiananmen Square in which hundreds of people were reportedly killed.
Born in 1928 in the family of a Communist revolutionary, Li became an orphan after his father was executed by the previous Kuomintang government.
He was raised by former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao and grew up to become one of China’s most prominent and controversial leaders.
However, Li dismissed as rumours that he was the adopted son of the late premier Zhou, although he said he was close to him and Deng.
In his memoir published in 2014, Li wrote that his relation with Zhou and Deng was like “a relationship between old comrades and martyrs’ descendants”.
“Some say I was the adopted son of premier Zhou. It is not correct,” Li wrote.
“Premier Zhou and mother Deng cared about many martyrs’ descendants and I was one of them. They cared just as much about the other descendants of their comrades-in-arms. We all call them uncle Zhou and mother Deng,” he said.
Trained as an engineer in the then Soviet Union, Li worked for a national power company after returning to China. He managed to escape the political turmoil during the era of Mao Zedong, including the dreaded Cultural Revolution purportedly due to his political connections.
After Mao’s death, he became prominent specially after reformist leader Deng took over power purging the ‘Gang of Four’ led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing.
After that he served as the fourth Chinese premier from 1987 to 1998 and held several influential posts of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
It was widely reported that Li was openly at odds with then Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was later purged for siding with the student protesters. On May 20, 1989, Li appeared on national television officially declaring martial law in Beijing.
China had initially labelled the student-led movement as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” but later referred to it as “political turmoil”.
Student leaders, however, called the military crackdown a “massacre”.
In the three decades since, all commemorations and public discussions of the events of 1989 have been strictly censored and suppressed in China.
Li’s death, coinciding with the current massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, evoked sharp reactions in the former British colony.
Lee Cheuk-yan, secretary of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said Li deserved to be denounced as “a sinner of a thousand years” for his role in the June 4 crackdown.
“It is an open secret that Li was the man behind the so-called April 26 People’s Daily editorial denouncing the student protests as premeditated and organised turmoil with anti-party and anti-socialist motives,” Lee was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.
“It angered the students and they had to stand firmer… Li’s hard-line approach worsened the protests, resulting in the massacre,” he said.
“I don’t think he will be easily forgiven by Chinese people,” he said.
Wang Dan, a leader of the student protests at the Tiananmen Square, now living in exile in the US, called Li an “enforcer and butcher” of the crackdown, and renewed calls for official condemnation of the violence.
“A new verdict on June 4 should still hold Li accountable, even after his death,” Wang said.
Li’s memoir, however, made no reference to the Tiananmen massacre.
As a trained engineer, Li was a major advocate of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, which has been criticised for the forced mass evictions of residents along the Yangtze River, as well as environmental risks and blamed for periodic tremors in the region.
Li is survived by two sons and a daughter. His eldest son Li Xiaopeng is China’s minister of transport and his daughter Li Xiaolin was vice-president of China Datang Corporation, one of the country’s biggest power companies, until she retired in 2018, the Post report said.