Scholars describe Li, a Russian-trained engineer, as an aloof technocrat. Orphaned early in China’s civil war, he was adopted by Zhou Enlai, the country’s first premier.
Throughout the Tiananmen Square protests, which came to a head on June 4, 1989, Li viewed the student demonstrators as a threat to both the government and the party. Early on, he warned party leader Deng Xiaoping that students were becoming “anti-party and anti-socialist.”
“The spear is now pointed directly at you and the others of the elder generation of proletarian revolutionaries,” Li said, according to the Tiananmen Papers, a collection of government documents about the uprising that were later published.
“There are open calls for the government to step down, appeals for nonsense like ‘open investigations into and discussions of the question of China’s governance and power,’ and calls to institute broader elections and revise the Constitution, to lift restrictions on political parties and newspapers, and to get rid of the category of ‘counterrevolutionary’ crimes.”
While Zhao Ziyang, then secretary general of the Communist Party of China, called for dialog with students, Li and his allies backed military force to clear the square.
“I think he and his conservative colleagues saw the student movement in April as a golden opportunity to weaken Zhao Ziyang,” said Minxin Pei, a senior associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They understood that Deng Xiaoping really hated the democracy movement and understood that Zhao Ziyang was not strong enough to crack down.”
While Li Peng and his conservative allies prevailed over Zhao’s liberal faction in dealing with the student protesters, he was less successful in the country’s economic policies that followed.
As the country moved toward opening trade with the outside world, the real winner, according to Pei, ended up being Jiang Zemin, who replaced Zhao Ziyang as general secretary of the party following the Tiananmen Square protests.
Jiang was a compromise candidate, supporting more open-market reforms without straying from the old line on politics. As China’s next president, Jiang continued dismantling the state-controlled economy while maintaining political control.
For his part, Li kept a low profile after ceding power to economic reformers in the early 1990s. He served as head of China’s Parliament — considered by many to be a sort of rubber stamp legislature — until his retirement in 2003.
In 2000, exiled student leaders and American human rights groups sued Li in a U.S. federal district court and served the former premier with a summons while he was in New York for a U.N. summit.
“We want to prove that he is accountable for the crime, and that this kind of crime, the human rights violation, is beyond China’s borders,” Xiao Qiang, then-executive director of Human Rights in China, who helped coordinate students’ efforts with U.S.-based lawyers, said at the time, according to the New York Times.
The court in New York later dropped the case in the name of diplomatic privilege, according to Xiao, who is now an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Two decades after the crackdown, Li is still associated with the hardliners in China, where he lives with his wife Zhu Lin.
“I think he always has this cloud over his head,” Pei said. “He put a human face on this tragedy. He represents a government that made a fateful decision. I think he always has something to answer to.”