‘Butcher of Beijing’ Li Peng, dies at 91

Beijing: Li Peng, the former Chinese premier human rights groups termed the “butcher of Beijing” for his role in the deadly 1989 crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, died on Monday. He was 91.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said Li had been suffering from an unspecified illness, but gave no cause of death.

A protege of Zhou Enlai, who became the first premier of the People’s Republic of China after Communist victory in 1949, Li proved a durable political operator amid the tumult of Mao Zedong’s rule and for decades afterward. He was a Russian-trained technocrat who spent decades as a power plant and central planning administrator.

Deng Xiaoping hand-selected Li as head of the Communist Party in 1987Li served in that role until 1998 and then was chairman of China’s top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, until 2003.

He was at the forefront of Chinese politics for decades, but his name is inextricably linked to the military assault on unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989. 

As premier, Li was the face of a group of hard-liners who saw the student-led movement against one-party rule as a threat to their authority and national stability. It was Li who declared martial law, paving the way for troops to enter the city in late May 1989. He also played a key role in the decision to send troops to clear the square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, as they went.

The late 1980s found China’s leaders split on where to take the country, with reformers like Secretary General Hu Yaobang and the man who succeeded him, Zhao Ziyang, pushing economic and political liberalization and others, including Mr. Li, pushing for a more centralized, state-led approach.

In 1986, students in cities across China demonstrated to demand political reform. Hu was blamed for the unrest and ousted as general secretary. 

When Hu died, in April 1989, thousands took to the streets in a display of grief that morphed into mass protest. They were demanding checks on government corruption, political reform and talks with top officials.

The protesters set up outside the Great Hall of the People, on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, and eventually started a hunger strike.

 On May 18, as the standoff deepened, Li met with student leaders for a nationally televised dialogue. In footage that shocked the nation, Li, looking imperious in his tunic-like Mao suit, was scolded and interrupted by students, including a hunger striker still in his hospital gown.

The next day, Zhao and Li went to meet with students in the square. Zhao tried to broker peace by praising the students’ good intentions, but he urged them to end their strike and leave the square. 

But with thousands marching and holding hunger strikes in the capital and many more flooding the streets of Shanghai in a show of solidarity, Li declared martial law on May 20, ordering tanks and troops into the capital. Beijing residents erected barricades to block their advance.

In the days that followed, more than 1 million people defiantly took to Beijing’s streets with the rallying cry: “Li Peng must step down.”

What happened next is still debated — and may be forever. According to the “Tiananmen papers” — a collection of documents leaked by an unknown Chinese source and vetted and published by U.S. China scholars in 2001 — at a June meeting of top leaders, Mr. Li made a case for clearing the square.

“It is becoming increasingly clear,” he reportedly told his comrades, “that the turmoil has been generated by a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary forces, and that their goals are to overthrow the Communist Party and to subvert the socialist system.”

The next day, troops advanced. For his role as the face of the massacre that followed, Li is reviled by survivors, witnesses and many ordinary Chinese, but over the decades he was protected and promoted by a party. 

The official verdict on Tiananmen is that what happened was necessary — to criticize Li would be to criticize the party. China scrubbed the incident from textbooks. Web searches for “Tiananmen Square” and “6/4” are censored.

Li was born in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, on October 20, 1928, during the early days of the conflict between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang forces and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.

His father, Li Shouxun, was a writer who took part in an uprising against the Kuomintang authorities in 1927 and was arrested and executed in 1930. Party lore holds that Mr. Li was later taken in by Zhou Enlai, a close friend of his father’s, and Zhou’s wife, Deng Yingchao. 

In his official memoir, Li denied that he was officially adopted. “Some people have said I am Premier Zhou’s adopted son. It is not true,” he wrote. “The relationship between Premier Zhou, Mother Deng and me was the relationship between old comrades and any martyrs’ descendants.”