Former Chinese Premier Li Peng, who was reviled by rights activists and many in the Chinese capital as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, has died.
Xinhua reported that Li, who was 90, died on Monday in Beijing, more than three decades after his government authorised a bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests in the early hours of June 4, 1989.
His death comes as China grapples with a widening political crisis in Hong Kong, where violent protests in the Chinese-controlled territory over an extradition bill have presented Beijing with the most serious popular challenge to its governance since the Tiananmen demonstrations.
Along with then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Mr Li was seen as an unapologetic hardliner responsible for ordering the assault that crushed weeks of demonstrations by protesters in Beijing.
His declaration of martial law over parts of Beijing on national television in the weeks before tanks and troops swept the square of protesters made him one of the most prominent faces of a crackdown that continues to colour global perception of China’s Communist Party leadership.
China has never provided a full accounting of the violence, but rights groups and witnesses say the death toll could run into the thousands.
On Tuesday, Xinhua said that “under the strong support” of Mr Deng, “Comrade Li Peng took a clear stand and together with most of the comrades of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, took decisive measures to stop the unrest and pacify the counter-revolutionary riots”.
Mr Li remained premier until 1998 as China navigated its way through the international opprobrium and sanctions imposed after the violence.
While Mr Deng’s legacy has been burnished by his subsequent role as the driver of economic reforms that propelled China’s dramatic rise, Mr Li’s image abroad remains tied to the 1989 crackdown.
Born in Sichuan province in China’s southwest on October 20, 1928, Mr Li was orphaned as a toddler when his father, Li Shuoxun, an early Communist Party revolutionary, was killed by Nationalist forces.
He was raised in the corridors of power, the ward of Premier Zhou Enlai, who along with Mao Zedong was among the leaders of China’s Communist Party revolution. Mr Li would become one of the country’s most powerful so-called princelings, or members of elite families that continue to wield influence.
Mr Zhou sent Mr Li at age 12 to the Communist heartland base of Yan’an to study, and Mr Li formally joined the party at 17 before studying in the Soviet Union.
A engineer by training, Mr Li rose through the ranks as an energy official. He was a champion of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, a massive feat of engineering that became part of his legacy.
But the 185-metre dam also has been one of China’s most expensive and controversial projects, submerging villages and disrupting ecosystems.
The dam project became a lightning rod for what critics saw as China’s growth-at-all-costs economic model, coming in billions of dollars over budget, and was later linked to embezzlement and nepotism scandals.
Two of Mr Li’s three children – son Li Xiaopeng and daughter Li Xiaolin – ultimately became influential in Chinese leadership circles.