The former Chinese premier Li Peng, reviled by rights activists and many in the Chinese capital as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, has died, according to state media.
Li, who was 90, died on Monday in Beijing, Xinhua reported, more than three decades after his government authorised a bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests in the early hours of 4 June 1989.
His death comes as China grapples with a widening political crisis in Hong Kong, where protests 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, Li was seen as an unapologetic hardliner responsible for ordering the assault that crushed weeks of demonstrations by protesters in central Beijing.
His declaration of martial law over parts of the capital 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.
The death toll given by officials days after the crackdown was about 300, most of them soldiers, with 23 students confirmed killed. China has never provided a full accounting of the violence, but rights groups and witnesses say the figure could run into the thousands. The topic is taboo in China.
On Tuesday, Xinhua said that “under the strong support” of 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.”
He “stabilised the domestic situation, and played an important role in this major struggle concerning the future of the party and the country”, Xinhua added.
Li remained premier until 1998, as China navigated its way through the international opprobrium and sanctions imposed by western countries after the violence.
Born in Sichuan province in China’s south-west, 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 the premier, Zhou Enlai, who along with Mao Zedong was among the leaders of China’s Communist party revolution. Li would become one of the country’s most powerful so-called princelings, or members of elite families that continue to wield influence.
Two of Li’s three children – his eldest son, Li Xiaopeng, and daughter, Li Xiaolin – went to work as executives in the power industry, and became influential in leadership circles. Li Xiaopeng was appointed transport minister in 2016.
A hydropower engineer by training, Li rose through the ranks as an energy official. He was a champion of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze river and in 1994 oversaw groundbreaking on the dam,which has also been one of China’s most expensive and controversial projects, submerging villages, displacing millions of peoples and disrupting ecosystems.
The dam project became a lightning rod for what critics saw as China’s growth-at-all-costs economic model, going billions of dollars over budget and later linked to embezzlement and nepotism scandals, according to China’s national audit office.