On May 19, 1989, then-Chinese Premier Li Peng, a newly-installed standing member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, declared in murderous tones a State Council curfew order, leading to the People’s Liberation Army’s brutal crackdown on student protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4.

Li then became known as the “butcher of Beijing,” but in China’s official obituary, issued a day after his death on Tuesday, he was hailed for his rock-ribbed loyalty and decisive role in quelling the 1989 unrest.

“Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Comrade Li adopted resolute measures to end the anti-revolutionary riot and stabilized the situation, in his key role in quashing the unrest that determined the upshot of the entire struggle and the future of the party and the state,” read the obituary.

Li Peng meets with student representatives in the Great Hall of the People in May 1989. Photo: China Central Television screen grab
Li declares martial law in a televised speech on May 19, 1989. Photo: Hong Kong ATV screen grab

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a political entity that hosts the annual candle-lit vigil for the victims of Tiananmen, called Li a “sinner for a thousand years” in its statement.

Albert Ho, the alliance’s leader who is also a prominent pro-democracy politician in the city, said Li fed party patriarch Deng false information about the students’ sit-in at Tiananmen Square in his bid to wrestle more power in the party’s factional schism and ease out the party’s General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was sympathetic towards the students throughout the protests.

Li maligned the students – who demanded rule of law, clean governance and democracy – as rioters and traitors of the state, inflaming Deng’s fear of losing his grip on the nation and ultimately leading to Deng’s edicts to send in troops to slay protesters and clear the square, according to Ho.

Other observers say Li can hardly absolve himself of the blame since he was more than a mere executor of Deng’s orders, as he was heavily involved in Deng’s strategizing for a sharp-elbow approach.

Protesters set fire to a Li Peng effigy during a memorial service for Tiananmen victims. Photo: Twitter

During Li’s premiership that ended in 1998, China’s nascent social movement and democratic reforms that emerged in the early 1980s were squelched, and he and then-president Jiang Zemin opted to spur economic development and market liberalization to put China on the mend.

Li was succeeded by Zhu Rongji in 1998 and became China’s top legislator as the chairman of the National People’s Congress, until his retirement in 2003.

It was said that Li made a bid to exonerate himself and sought to publish a memoir about the Tiananmen incident, only to be dissuaded by the party’s top leadership. His unpublished book hinted that it was the arbitrary Deng who mandated the killings and that he had clean hands throughout the matter.

It has also been reported that Li was dying in early June, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, yet authorities made extra efforts to make sure he would not take his last breath in that sensitive month.

Other than Tiananmen, Li is also known for his family’s wheeling and dealing with the nation’s power and electricity conglomerates, as well as the high-flying lifestyle of his scions.

Li, groomed in the Soviet Union and majored in hydropower generation, bulldozed the Three Gorges project through the NPC to dam and harness the Yangtze River despite rare, widespread concerns among lawmakers and engineers about the project’s safety and environmental and social impact.

He is also accused of cronyism when appointing senior executives to major state-owned power generators in his capacity as electricity minister and then premier.

His son Li Xiaopeng was the general manager of the state-owned electricity utility enterprise China Huaneng Group and governor of the resource-rich central Shanxi province and is now China’s minister of transportation.

Li Peng’s daughter Li Xiaolin (right) dances on the sidelines of a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meeting in Beijing.
Li Xiaolin, wearing a pink Gucci suit and Roger Vivier shoes, with Xi Jinping. Photos: Weibo

Li’s daughter Li Xiaolin, aka “China’s electricity queen,” who has a penchant for expensive fur coats, jewelry and handbags as well as dancing the cha-cha-chá, was also a talking point when she was at the helm of China Power Investment Corp.

Li Xiaolin was demoted to another power company and offered to retire early last year amid rumors that she opted to bow out of the electricity industry as Xi Jinping aimed to short-circuit an investigation and trial to nab “big tigers” in his graft-busting campaign.