Obituary: Li Peng, China's technocrat 'communist warrior' who rose to the top in chaotic times

Late premiers Li Peng and Zhou Enlai have come to occupy two very different places in the Chinese consciousness, one hugely controversial, the other a national hero.

While Zhou remains a cherished leader to most Chinese, Li will forever be remembered for his controversial role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown ” sealed by his appearance on national television on May 20, 1989, angrily declaring martial law in Beijing.

Li’s death, at the age of 90, was reported by China’s official news agency Xinhua on Tuesday. In the official obituary, he was described as "a loyal communist warrior" and "an outstanding leader of the Communist Party and the state". The statement said that he died of illness in Beijing on Monday.” data-reactid=”20″>Li’s death, at the age of 90, was reported by China’s official news agency Xinhua on Tuesday. In the official obituary, he was described as “a loyal communist warrior” and “an outstanding leader of the Communist Party and the state”. The statement said that he died of illness in Beijing on Monday.

The obituary heaped lavish praise on the former premier, crediting him for standing firm in 1989 and making a great contribution to China’s reforms despite the country’s isolation after Tiananmen.

In describing the 1989 crackdown, the obituary said the premier, who had the support of party elders including paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, had played an “important role”.

“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,” the obituary 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,” it added.

As premier, the obituary said, Li had made great strides in refocusing the country’s economic development on technology and state sector reforms.

Li became the parliamentary chief in 1998 when he stepped down as premier after serving two terms. He remains the only Chinese politician who has held both powerful positions.

Born to a father the party recognised as a “martyr”, Li benefited from the care of party elders who later became the country’s founding fathers, and he was widely rumoured to be the adopted son of Zhou, who served as China’s premier for almost three decades.

Li rose through the political ranks during one of the nation’s most chaotic periods. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the party leadership was locked in a debate between the reformist camp and the conservative wing over the country’s direction. Li was seen as a representative of the old guard, backed by party elder Chen Yun.

Many observers viewed Li as an uninspired technocrat, who believed China’s progress could only come in the form of huge infrastructure projects such as the controversial Three Gorges Dam, which he orchestrated.

“Li’s political support in government circles was largely because he was thought of as the adopted son of the most respected founding premier,” said Laurence Brahm, a Beijing-based political economist and an expert in China’s elite politics.

However, in his official memoir, published in 2014, Li denied he was adopted by Zhou.

Li was born in Shanghai in 1928 to a family from Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan. His father, Li Shouxun, a writer and a friend of Zhou, was executed for being a communist revolutionary in 1930. In his memoir, Li Peng said he met Zhou’s wife, Deng Yingchao, in Chengdu in 1939 and was then taken to Zhou’s home in Chongqing. He said he did not meet Zhou until 1940.

As was the case with many revolutionary offspring, Li was sent to study in the Soviet Union, dispatched to the Moscow Power Engineering Institute in 1948.

After his return to China in 1955, Li worked as chief engineer and director of two large power plants in the northeast of the country. Thanks to his job and political connections, he avoided becoming ensnared in the national upheavals of the Great Leap Forward, which began in the late 1950s, and the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966.

After Deng Xiaoping became paramount leader in the late 1970s, Li moved into several increasingly key, powerful political positions. He was appointed vice-minister of the power industry in 1979 and minister two years later.

When Zhao Ziyang was promoted from premier to party general secretary in 1987 following the purging of Hu Yaobang, Li was picked to succeed Zhao, first as acting premier and then, from 1988, as premier.

Throughout the 1980s, China was moving away from its centrally planned economy to embrace market reforms, a cause championed by Hu and Zhao. The programme reached deep into the fabric of Chinese society, touching not just politics, but also the legal system, industry and the military.

But the party was split over the shift in ideology and the new direction of the economy. Brahm said Li viewed economics through the prism of state planning ” a result of his Soviet education and training.

Li’s conflict with Zhao escalated in the spring of 1989 as the democracy movement grew. Zhao called for dialogue with the students and broad political reforms, but Li wanted to take a hard line and argued for tough measures to suppress the “troublemakers”, saying they wanted to stir up political and social turmoil.

In the end, Li used his authority as premier to declare martial law on May 20 and was personally involved in overseeing the bloody military crackdown in Tiananmen Square that followed.

Edward Friedman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in elite Chinese politics, said Li proved he was worthy of the trust of his factional backers in the struggles of the late 1980s against liberal reform efforts, helping to defeat and remove opponents such as Hu and Zhao and making repression of the democracy protests easier.

In the aftermath of the June 4 bloodshed, Li launched a witch hunt in which thousands of pro-democracy activists were arrested and imprisoned.

Zhang Xianling, a member of the victims’ family support group Tiananmen Mothers, which is pushing for the government to change its official verdict, said Li “should be among the three most senior leaders to be personally held accountable for the bloody crackdown”.

Although Li was not the only person responsible for the Tiananmen disaster, it cemented his image as one of China’s most unpopular leaders in recent decades.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed in central Beijing when the military crushed the student-led protests.

“Li Peng must be condemned by history for his crucial role in masterminding the crackdown,” said Zhang, whose 19-year-old son Wang Nan was shot in the head on June 4, 1989, while photographing a clash between students and soldiers on Changan Avenue.

Li will also be remembered for his role in the Three Gorges Dam project, which was approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992 after heated debate. Li gave assurances the dam would offer huge benefits in flood control, power supply and shipping traffic.

But scientists and environmentalists argued that a dam stretching across almost 2km (1.2 miles) of the Yangtze River would pose serious financial and environmental risks. As recently as this month, the top engineer of the project and other Chinese hydropower scholars were still busy assuring the public about the dam’s security, as deadly floods hit the country’s south and east.

Brahm said that premier Li aggressively promoted the project, which destroyed countless homes, heritage sites and the ecology of the complex river system.

“He represented the dominant view of the day that engineering could overcome planetary boundaries, a materialist view of our world that projected into a generation of over-construction and irrational growth that is now being addressed by a new leadership seeking to rebalance China’s economy and social distortions,” said Brahm, who has written a biography of Zhu Rongji, Li’s immediate successor as premier.

Li continued to project a hard line when he was chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body, from 1998 to 2003.

In his memoir, Li wrote that he took great pride in the thaw in diplomatic ties between China and Western countries after the 1989 crackdown. In 1992, Li, who was then premier, attended a United Nations meeting in New York and met then president George H.W. Bush, despite criticism at the time that any meeting with Li would elevate China’s international standing.

The Li family has a deep involvement in China’s lucrative power industry, with his son Li Xiaopeng, now transport minister, and daughter Li Xiaolin having been in charge of state-owned power giants for decades.

Friedman said Li and other members of the faction who opposed reform turned out to be ones who had used the liberalised economy as a vehicle for personal wealth.

South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.” data-reactid=”98″>This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.