Former Chinese premier Li Peng, known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the Tiananmen Square killings, has died at the age of 90 in Beijing on Monday, July 22.
Considered as one of China’s most influential but controversial political leaders, Li reportedly succumbed to an unspecified illness after failing to respond to medical treatment, South China Morning Post reports.
Li’s death has been described by state media as “a great loss for the country,” with Xinhua hailing him as ”a great communist leader and statesman.”
Meanwhile, dissidents and human rights activists see him as a hated symbol of repression, holding him responsible for the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital on June 4, 1989, which led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
Li’s influence began and flourished under Deng Xiaoping in 1978 during the first two decades of the “reform and opening up” process.
He stayed in power serving both as the country’s premier for over a decade from 1987 to 1998 and chairman of the national legislature from 1998 to 2003. Even after retiring, Li retained some influence in the Politburo Standing Committee.
However, his legacy as a politician remains highly controversial in both Hong Kong and mainland China.
In May 1989, Li announced the imposition of martial law, resulting in students demonstrating and demanding his resignation in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Chinese military entered Beijing’s central streets weeks later and opened fire on thousands of people who had been staying there for weeks. This was the incident that earned him the moniker “the Butcher of Beijing.”
In its obituary on Li, Xinhua framed his role in the 1989 crackdown as “important.”
“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 stabilizing the domestic situation,” it wrote.
“He made an important contribution in this fundamental struggle, which was critical to the future and fate of the Communist Party and the state.”
Li’s role in the crackdown is viewed quite differently by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China secretary Lee Cheuk-yan.
According to Lee, Li should instead be denounced as “a sinner of a thousand years.”
“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 organized turmoil with anti-party and anti-socialist motives,” Lee was quoted as saying.
“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, who served as a leader of student protests during the demonstrations against Li’s regime, has dubbed Li as an “enforcer and butcher” for his brutal crackdown.
Now living in exile in the United States, Wang has renewed calls for an official condemnation of the violence that took place 30 years ago.
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