Former Chinese premier Li Peng dies, aged 90

Jun Mai

Li Peng, one of China’s most influential but controversial political leaders, died at the age of 90 in Beijing late Monday night, state media reported.

State news agency Xinhua described Li’s death as a great loss for the country, hailing him as a great communist leader and statesman. But human rights activists and dissidents called him a “sinner”, holding him responsible for the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, when hundreds of people, perhaps more than 1,000, died.

Li, the only Chinese leader who had served both as the country’s premier and chairman of the national legislature, wielded tremendous influence during his career. He died at 11.11pm on Monday but his death was only officially confirmed almost 20 hours later.

His legacy in both Hong Kong and mainland China remains hugely controversial.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of Beijing’s semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, said Li was a “conservative reformist”.

“In the eyes of the central government, the 1989 crackdown was not necessarily a bad thing. They saw the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union collapse while China continued to develop and is now the world’s second-biggest economy,” Lau said.

He added that Li played little role in the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

Li Peng trained as an electrical engineer and was a major advocate of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Photo: Beijing Institute of Technology

The official obituary issued by Xinhua said Li had an “important” role in the 1989 crackdown.

“Under the resolute support of veteran revolutionary leaders represented by comrade Deng Xiaoping, comrade Li Peng unequivocally stood with most of the comrades of the Politburo, taking decisive measures to stop the turmoil, cracking down on the counter-revolutionary riot and stabilising the domestic situation,” it said.

“He made an important contribution in this fundamental struggle, which was critical to the future and fate of the Communist Party and the state.”

But 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 military clampdown 30 years ago.

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“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 said.

“It angered the students and they had to stand firmer ... Li’s hardline approach worsened the protests, resulting in the massacre.

“I don’t think he will be easily forgiven by Chinese people.”

Wang Dan, a leader of the student protests and now living in exile in the United States, called Li an “enforcer and butcher” in 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 served as premier from 1987 to 1998 and was openly at odds with then-party general secretary Zhao Ziyang during the student-led pro-democracy protests in the summer of 1989. In the resulting power struggle, Li emerged the victor with the backing of late paramount leader Deng.

On May 20, 1989, Li appeared on national television officially declaring martial law in Beijing. It eventually led to the tragic crackdown on June 4, forever associating his name with the bloodshed.

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While Deng picked Jiang Zemin to replace Zhao in 1989, Li remained premier and went on to become chairman of the National People’s Congress in 1998, cementing his position as the second most powerful man in China. He retired from politics in 2003.

Trained as a hydroelectric engineer, he was also known as the staunchest advocate of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project.

The project has been criticised for forced mass evictions of residents along the Yangtze River, as well as environmental risks. But supporters of the project say it is a world-class achievement and a key driver of economic development in China’s hinterland.

Additional reporting by Nectar Gan

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