Tuesday, July 23, 2019

People of 1989: Li Peng (李鹏)

Premier Li Peng was undoubtedly the No. 1 target during the entire 1989 Chinese student movement.

Li Peng was born in 1928. He was an offspring of an earlier Communist Party underground and martyr. He spent his earlier life working in the technical field of electrical engineering and did not reach prominence until 1980, when he was named as the minister for electrical industry.

The 1980s saw Li Peng steadily rise in the ranks of the top echelon of Chinese leadership, serving the posts of Vice Premier, Commissioner of Education, Politburo Member, Politburo Standing Committee Member. When Premier Zhao Ziyang succeeded the disgraced Hu Yaobang into the post of General Secretary, Li Peng became the Premier.

Li Peng continued to maintain a low public profile, dodged by unfounded rumors of his heritage and favoritism. While as Education Commissioner as well as Vice Premier, he instituted a series of policy that limited university students from going abroad. This certainly did not gain him any favors from the younger generation. Also in the 1980s, he was consistently portrayed as an enemy of reform for his willingness to reign in the economy from runaway inflation.

As the 1989 movement started, students took aim straight to Li Peng. Whether it was when they staged protests in front of Xinhuamen or an kneeling appeal at Hu Yaobang funeral, the loudest chant was always "Li Peng, Come Out!" But Li Peng made no attempt in publicly acknowledging or responding to the demands. He was content to let Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping handle the movement on the front line.

When the situation escalated and then deteriorated, Li Peng finally stepped up with a surprising meeting with the hunger striking student leaders.

But it was later when he announced the imposition of martial law that his image was forever burned into history.

He quickly became the public enemy No 1 among the protesters, who often chanted "We will Come Every Day, Until Li Peng Goes Away" (“李鹏不下台,我们天天来”)

After the massacre, Li Peng also earned the reputation of "Butcher of Beijing" in international media. He later delivered an official indictment on the now overthrown Zhao Ziyang. But perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, he did not succeed him as General Secretary but remained as Premier.

Li Peng later did reign in the economy with the help of an oppressive political atmosphere in the aftermath of 1989, which paved the way for a new round of reform and openness in the 1990s. He was also instrumental in the building of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Li Peng stepped down from Premiership in 1998 and retired from public life in 2003. He spent his later years writing memoirs. He died on July 22, 2019 in Beijing. He was 90.

People of 1989

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