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Li Peng, Chinese premier who backed Tiananmen Square crackdown, dies aged 90

Li Peng spent two decades at the pinnacle of power before retiring in 2002.

Former Chinese premier Li Peng (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Former Chinese premier Li Peng (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Li Peng, a former hardline Chinese premier best known for announcing martial law during the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests which ended with a bloody crackdown by troops, has died aged 90.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Mr Li died Monday of an unspecified illness.

Mr Li, a keen political infighter, spent two decades at the pinnacle of power before retiring in 2002.

He left behind a legacy of prolonged and broad-based economic growth coupled with authoritarian political controls.

While broadly disliked by the public, he oversaw China’s re-emergence from post-Tiananmen isolation to rising global diplomatic and economic clout, a development he celebrated in public statements that were often defiantly nationalistic.

“Ridding themselves from the predicament of imperialist bullying, humiliation and oppression, the calamity-trodden Chinese people have since stood up,” Mr Li said in 1995 in a speech for the October 1 anniversary of the 1949 revolution that brought the ruling Communist Party to power.

One reminder of Mr Li is likely stand for ages to come. During his final years in power, he pushed through approval for his pet project, the gargantuan multibillion pound Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which forced 1.3 million people to leave homes that were swallowed up by its enormous reservoir.

Mr Li, who became acting premier in November 1987, triumphed over pro-reform party leader Zhao Ziyang in 1989, who was toppled from power for sympathising with the student protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“The situation will not develop as you wish and expect,” an angry Mr Li told student leaders in a confrontational meeting on May 18, 1989.

The next night, Mr 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 June 3-4, troops invaded the city, killing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Beijing residents on their way to ending the student occupation of Tiananmen Square.

China acknowledged Mr Li’s role, but in a positive way, in a lengthy eulogy read Tuesday night by a newscaster on state broadcaster CCTV.

Mr Li joined the majority of the leadership in taking “resolute measures to prevent turmoil, quell the counter-revolutionary riots and stabilise the domestic situation,” the eulogy read in part.

“He played an important role in the great struggle that concerns the future and destiny of the party and the nation.”

Mr 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.

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.

PA

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