Li Peng - China’s premier during Tiananmen crackdown - dies
Issued on: Modified:
For many, Li Peng is “the butcher of Beijing.” For others, he is a “steadfast revolutionary” who kept his head cool and managed to “restore stability” in the face of "chaos."
Li, who died on July 22, age 90, was part of China’s strongman Deng Xiaoping’s political team that lead China’s turbulent transition from class-struggle-defined socialism to free-for-all capitalism.
“Li Peng, step down, appease the anger of the people,” is the hidden message of a poem published by the People’s Daily's overseas edition, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party (CCP) on March 20, 1991, almost two years after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, when the People’s Liberation Army moved against peaceful protesters, killing hundreds in the process.
The line is written diagonally, and not easy to spot – and this worked: the strict censors of the People’s Daily missed it completely. Unknown students had submitted the poem, under the name of “Zhu Haihong – overseas student living in the US,” called “Rice Ball” –after a delicacy eaten during China’s spring festival- and written the line diagonally. Once discovered, it was copied and the poem spread like wildfire.
This act of popular disobedience two years after the Tiananmen crackdown revealed how unpopular Li Peng still was. Many saw him as the face of repression, the man who was responsible for ruthlessly sending in the troops to end the protests.
But before Li Peng became China’s Prime Minister, he had followed an almost exemplary career.
Li Peng was born 20 October 1928 in the French concession in Shanghai. His parents were early communist rebels who were caught and executed by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT).
The orphaned Li was sent to to Yan’an at age 13, the town in northern China where the Communist rebels held a base against the KMT. He was then raised by Mao Zedong’s right hand man Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao.
In 1945, age 17, he joined the CCP. He spent seven years studying in Moscow under a Soviet program that helped Chinese communist to gain fluency in the Marxist-Leninist ideals.
Upon his return, he held engineering jobs and directorships of power plants, but as a result of his solid connections with the top leadership, his star rose rapidly. After the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) where he, and most other party bureaucrats came under attack, he worked himself up, becoming China’s Prime Minister in 1988, and a permanent member of the all-powerful politburo of the CCP.
For many, Li Peng represented the “hard line” faction in China’s political spectrum that was in favor of strict political control and a more guided economy, against Zhao Ziyang, whom he succeeded as Prime Minister, and who favored a more freewheeling economy and more liberties to the people.
The turning point came in the spring of 1989, when general dissatisfaction with the economy resulted in mass demonstrations concentrating on and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing that were eventually quelled by the Chinese army.
Demonstrators on the square had singled out Li Peng whom they accused of having written a crucial opinion piece in the People’s Daily, calling the demonstrations “chaos,” and paving the way for the eventual crackdown by the army.
A month after the crackdown and the following persecution of dissidents, Li Peng was the first Chinese leader to offer an –widely ridiculed- excuse, saying that the army “was obliged to use force because it didn’t have enough tear gas, rubber bullets or water cannon.”
Three Gorges Dam
Over the decade that followed, he was subtly retracted from the political scene, and overshadowed by President and CCP secretary Jiang Zemin and vice-Premier Zhu Rongji, who would succeed him and who had no direct involvement in the Tiananmen massacre. His largest post-Tiananmen feat was probably his launching the construction for the massive Three Gorges Dam in the Yangzi River, in 1994.
The Three Gorges Dam was Li’s pet project, that would fulfil Beijing's 75-year dream of taming the flood-prone Yangzi and providing cheap power to millions – but it also meant that about a dozen cities along the river will have to be abandoned and over 1.2 million people moved. In 1998 he stepped down as Prime Minister, and in 2003, he retired from his last political functions and slipped into oblivion.
“Life of a revolutionary”
Today Li Peng is shown as an example of an ideal leader. The People’s Daily of July 24 dedicates half a page to Li Peng’s death, saying that he lived the “life of a revolutionary,” who “wholeheartedly served the people” and “dedicated his life to the Communist Party.”
It also resorts to the hardline rhetoric used in 1989, calling the student’s movement a “counter-revolutionary riot” rather than “unrest”– representative of a general hardening of political phraseology and urges readers to honor Li Peng’s memory by “struggling hard” to fulfill (current Chinese leader) Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” policy that involves the continent-spanning "Belt and Road Initiative."