By Ken Moritsugu | AP
BEIJING, China, 25 July 2019
The legacy of former Chinese Premier Li Peng is reflected in modern China itself, where extended and broad-based economic growth is inextricably coupled with authoritarian political controls.
Li, who died Monday at 90, warned Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters in May 1989 that “the situation will not develop as you wish” a day before he announced martial law. And the pet project he pushed was the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced 1.3 million people and is now the world’s largest hydroelectric plant.
Official Chinese media made a rare and fleeting reference to the Tiananmen crackdown while eulogizing Li, who had an unspecified illness.
Li joined the majority of the leadership in taking “resolute measures to prevent turmoil, quell the counterrevolutionary riots and stabilize the domestic situation,” said part of the eulogy read Tuesday evening by a CCTV newscaster. “He played an important role in the great struggle that concerns the future and destiny of the party and the nation.”
Li was a keen political infighter who spent two decades at the pinnacle of power before retiring in 2002. While broadly disliked by the public, he oversaw China’s reemergence from post-Tiananmen isolation to gain global diplomatic and economic clout, a development he often celebrated in defiantly nationalistic public statements.
“Ridding themselves from the predicament of imperialist bullying, humiliation and oppression, the calamity-trodden Chinese people have since stood up,” Li said in a 1995 speech marking the anniversary of the 1 October 1949, revolution that brought the ruling Communist Party to power.
One reminder of Li will likely stand for ages to come: During his final years in power, he pushed through approval for his pet project — the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, which swallowed up cities and towns with its enormous reservoir and altered the Yangtze River ecology. Completed only in the past decade, it enabled shipping farther inland and the electricity capacity to power China’s economic growth.
A Sichuan province native, Li became acting premier in November 1987 and triumphed in 1989 over pro-reform party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was toppled for sympathizing with the student protesters at Tiananmen Square.
“The situation will not develop as you wish and expect,” Li told student leaders in a confrontational meeting on 18 May 1989.
The next night, Li, flushed with anger, went on national television to announce martial law in Beijing.
“The anarchic state is going from bad to worse,” he said. “We are forced to take resolute and decisive measures to put an end to the turmoil.”
On the night of 3-4 June, military troops invaded the city, killing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people to end the student occupation of Tiananmen Square.
Li stepped down as premier in 1998, becoming chairman of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. He retired from the party’s seven-member ruling Standing Committee in 2002 as part of a long-planned handover of power to a younger generation of leaders headed by Hu Jintao.
In his later years, Li rarely appeared in public, and was usually seen only at official gatherings aimed at displaying unity, such as the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army in 2007.
As his profile waned, he reportedly began lobbying older colleagues to support his children’s political ambitions. One of his two sons, Li Xiaopeng, was the governor of Shanxi province before becoming transport minister in 2016.
Li returned to the headlines in 2010 when a Hong Kong publisher announced he had Li’s purported memoir on the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The publisher later halted the book’s release, claiming copyright problems, but supposed excerpts of the diaries were leaked online.
A cautious and uninspiring figure, Li was one of the few leaders to inspire real dislike among the nation’s masses, although he was said to encourage loyalty among his subordinates.
Born in October 1928 in the southwestern city of Chengdu, he was adopted by the late Premier Zhou Enlai after Li’s father, an early communist revolutionary, was killed by the rival Nationalists in 1931.
He shrugged off questions of nepotism, saying he was one of many war orphans cared for by Zhou and his wife. But he did say that “their ideals and moral influence had a profound influence on my upbringing.”
Li joined the Communist Party in 1945 after joining Zhou, Mao Zedong and others at their wartime guerrilla base of Yan’an in the northwest.
After spending six years as an engineering student in Moscow, Li worked as an engineer for a decade in northeastern China.
He was named director of the Beijing Electric Power Administration in 1966, and according to official biographies, was responsible for ensuring a stable power supply to Beijing and Tianjin during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Li headed what was called the “power industry family.” His daughter Li Xiaolin was a prominent figure in the state power sector. Her retirement as CEO of China Power International Development in 2015 was seen by some as part of current Chinese President Xi Jinping’s moves to uproot leaders’ children from highly visible positions in the state sector.
Li rose quickly after 1979, and in 1985 became a member of the party’s decision-making Politburo with an education portfolio.
It was in that role that he established himself as a conservative, telling students in 1985 that China can never become capitalist: “To allow bourgeois freedoms would only make our country’s affairs chaotic.”
His tough stance when students staged pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities in late 1986 and early 1987 helped him win a post on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, leading to his showdown with the reform-minded Zhao over Tiananmen in 1989.