Li Peng, the former Chinese premier derided as the stone-faced “butcher of Beijing” for his role in the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, died on Monday in the Chinese capital. He was 90.
Mr. Li’s death was announced on Tuesday by Xinhua, the state-run news agency. Xinhua’s report gave no specific cause of death, saying only that medical treatment had failed.
Born to Communist revolutionaries in the early years of the Chinese civil war and educated as a hydroelectric engineer in the Soviet Union, Mr. Li rose to the top ranks of the Communist Party, serving as a bridge between the old guard of revolutionaries and the more technocratic leaders who succeeded them.
He served 10 years as prime minister and then five years, until his retirement in 2003, as chief of the National People’s Congress, the country’s party-dominated, rubber-stamp Parliament.
Mr. Li was never widely loved by the Chinese public and was a wooden presence on television, but he wielded great power late in his career as a top-ranking member of the secretive Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s leading center of power. That he survived at such a rarefied level suggested that he was more politically adroit than his stodgy public image indicated.
Mr. Li is most widely remembered as the forbidding official in a Mao suit who appeared on television in May 1989 to announce the imposition of martial law in urban Beijing and to denounce leaders of the giant pro-democracy protests that had occupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city. They were enemies of the Communist Party, he declared, who imperiled “the fate and future of the People’s Republic of China, built by many revolutionary martyrs with their blood.”
Historians have debated how much personal responsibility Mr. Li bore for the army’s assault on students and workers beginning late on June 3, 1989, when tanks and troops with automatic rifles opened fire, killing hundreds if not more as they plowed toward Tiananmen Square. The troops took the square early on June 4.
Scholars have also debated Mr. Li’s role in the removal and permanent house arrest that spring of his more liberal rival, Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party general secretary, who was nominally of a higher rank. Mr. Zhao had advocated negotiating with the students and opposed using the army against them. Mr. Zhao died in 2005.
Ever since 1989, critics have called for Mr. Li to face trial or a public reckoning for his role in the bloodshed. But 30 years after the Tiananmen crackdown, the Communist Party shows no sign of disavowing the decision to use armed force.
A full obituary will be published shortly.
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