ormer Chinese premier Li Peng, the man widely regarded as the leading proponent of the bloody 1989 crackdown on students protesting in Tiananmen Square, has died at the age of 90.
Li’s death was reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday evening. The report states that Li died of an unspecified illness in Beijing.
An orphan, engineer, revolutionary
Born in 1928 in Shanghai, Li was the son of a Communist revolutionary who was captured and executed in 1931 by the Kuomintang, leaving him an orphan at the age of three.
Li would eventually find his way to the Communist stronghold of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi province in the 1940s. With the backing of Zhou Enlai, he trained to be an engineer in Yan’an before being sent to the Soviet Union for further study.
After arriving back in China in 1955, Li took up posts as the chief engineer, director, and Party secretary of various power plants and energy administrations while making it out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution unscathed.
The Butcher of Beijing
With Deng Xiaoping in power following Mao’s death, Li moved swiftly up the energy ministry hierarchy. In 1987, he was placed on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and made China’s premier.
Li ascension coincided with the downfall of Hu Yaobang, China’s reformist Party secretary who was forced to resign from his position after failing to crack down hard on student demonstrations in 1987. Li became the leader of the conservative faction of the party, working against the agenda of Hu’s successor, Zhao Ziyang.
When throngs of students occupied Tiananmen Square to protest against the government in 1989 following Hu’s death, Li advocated taking a hardline and refused to negotiate with the protesters.
Li’s arguments are said to have eventually won out among Deng Xiaoping and other Party elders. On May 20, Li went on TV to declare martial law in Beijing. On the evening of July 3, People’s Liberation Army troops and tanks forced their way through the streets of Beijing to finally end the protests in blood.
Afterward, Li hailed the crackdown, in which hundreds or thousands are believed to have been killed, as a historic victory for the Communist Party and a necessary step, arguing that the protests could have done as much damage to China as the Cultural Revolution.
While he may have become known as the “Butcher of Beijing” among China’s critics, the moniker did not spoil Li’s political fortunes. He remained one of the most powerful figures in the Communist Party during the 1990s. Ending his term as premier in 1998 before formally retiring in 2002.
After hearing news of Li’s death, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, wrote a eulogy of sorts on Facebook.
“Li Peng has been able to live in this world for so long because he is a person who has no conscience, whose soul is unable to be tormented,” he wrote. “Li Peng deserved to die for his crimes but his death won’t bring any comfort to the families of the victims of June 4.”
On Twitter, Wu’er was a bit more brief:
Li Peng dead. He was an asshole.
— 吾尔开希 Wu'er Kaixi (@wuerkaixi) July 23, 2019