Li Peng
Li Peng

BEIJING: Li Peng, a former hard-line Chinese premier best known for announcing martial law during the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that ended with a bloody crackdown by troops, has died. He was 90.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Li died on Monday of an unspecified illness. His death was not announced until Tuesday evening.

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 reemergence from post-Tiananmen isolation to rising global diplomatic and economic clout, a development he celebrated in public statements that often were defiantly nationalistic.

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

One reminder of Li will likely stand for ages to come: During his final years in power, he pushed through approval for his pet project the gargantuan $22 billion Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which forced 1.3 million people to leave homes that were swallowed up by its enormous reservoir.

Li, who became acting premier in November 1987, triumphed over pro-reform party leader Zhao Ziyang in 1989 after the fellow native of Sichuan province 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 Li told student leaders in a confrontational meeting on May 18, 1989.

The next night, 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.”

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2019