'Butcher of Beijing' tries to clear his name

Former Chinese prime minister points the finger of blame for Tiananmen massacre at late leader.


Jonathan Watts
August 18, 2004 6:34PM (UTC)

Li Peng, the former Chinese prime minister dubbed the "Butcher of Beijing" for his role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown, is trying to clear his name with a new essay that shifts some of the blame on to his political master. After 15 years of vilification as the leader who declared martial law and ordered in the tanks, the most unpopular man in China has declared he was merely an apprentice following the wishes of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

"In the spring and summer of 1989, a serious political disturbance took place in China," wrote Mr Li in the monthly magazine Seeking Truth.

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"With the boldness of vision of a great revolutionary and politician, comrade Deng Xiaoping along with other party elders gave the leadership their firm and full support to put down the political disturbance using forceful measures."

For such a senior figure, it was a rare public reference to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Chinese Communist party, when People's Liberation Army troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4 1989.

With many of today's leaders implicated, the massacre is the most politically sensitive topic in China. Despite calls from victims' families for an investigation, media discussion of it is almost taboo.

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But Mr Li, who stepped down from his final government post last year, has more reason than most to want to reopen debate. In the eyes of most Chinese, the 75-year-old is primarily responsible.

In the protest before the crackdown, thousands of students and citizens in the square chanted the slogan "Li Peng must step down". As premier, he was blamed for scheming to undermine Zhao Ziyang, the moderate party secretary general who argued against the use of force.

According to leaked "Tiananmen papers", Mr Li moved at a meeting on June 2 1989 that the square be cleared. "It is becoming increasingly clear," he told Deng and other leaders, "that the turmoil has been generated by a coalition of foreign and domestic reactionary forces, and that their goals are to overthrow the Communist party and to subvert the socialist system."

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After the army clashed with Beijing citizens who were trying to prevent the troops reaching the square, Mr Li called for "decisive measures to put down this counter-revolutionary riot". Mr Li has indirectly referred to the massacre in the past. Last August he published a book in which he mentioned for the first time he had been in hospital in July 1989 prompting many sinologists to speculate that he had suffered a breakdown after the bloodshed.

This spring, a magazine in Hong Kong reported that the communist leadership had blocked the publication of Mr Li's memoirs. According to Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly), Mr Li offered to revise his 300,000-character manuscript entitled The Key Moment, but he was still denied permission to release a work deemed too sensitive.

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Now he has used the 100th anniversary of Deng's birth as an opportunity to play down his responsibility for the three most controversial decisions of his tenure: the Tiananmen crackdown; the construction of the Three Gorges dam; and the building of the Daya bay nuclear plant.

In a commemorative essay for Seeking Truth, a Communist party mouthpiece, Mr Li says the government's most daring policies had been initiated by his mentor, who died in 1997. He paints a picture of a relationship with Deng in which he was a timid apprentice in need of encouragement from the master. Recalling a conversation when he became premier in 1988, Mr Li wrote that Deng had urged him to toughen himself up.

"Comrade Xiaoping said: 'What I am worried about is that you are not bold enough to carry out your work. You have to learn hard and train yourself in work in order to make yourself more mature.'"

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But Mr Li showed no remorse for the Tiananmen massacre, echoing only the official line that it had been necessary to put down the "disturbance" to ensure the stability that has underpinned China's economic growth.

The debate is unlikely to end with Mr Li's essay. There have been calls from within the party for a reassessment of the events of June 4 1989.

This year one of the most respected men in China Jiang Yanyong, the military doctor who blew the whistle on the Sars cover-up urged the party to reconsider the acts of the demonstrators as "patriotic". Dr Jiang's letter in which he described treating the victims of the massacre was leaked to the international media, but was never published within China.

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Links href="http://hrw.org/campaigns/china/scholars/t15/"> Human Rights Watch: Tiananmen Square, students' support href="http://tsquare.tv/">Beijing uprising 1989


Jonathan Watts

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