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The man who took on the dissidents

Li Peng
Li's humiliation over being scolded on TV by a dissident student probably led to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, observers say  

Li Peng (1928- )

"As of 10 a.m. on 20 May 1989 martial law shall apply in some districts of the municipality of Beijing; its introduction shall be organized by the Beijing Municipal People's Government, which shall take specific measures under martial law in accordance with actual needs."

-- Li Peng's declaration of emergency in Beijing, May 20, 1989, in response to the student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and its surroundings

(CNN) -- China's student-led democracy movement in 1989 provided the world with some memorable, shattering images. The overriding picture was that of tanks from the People's Liberation Army rolling into Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4 in the dead of night, a crackdown that resulted in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists and their supporters.

Weeks before, a million-plus people in Tiananmen Square and its environs rallied peacefully and called on the Chinese government to embrace political reforms. Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang wept at the side of students on a hunger strike, a show of compassion that would eventually lose Zhao his job.

Then there was the image of a key student leader, Wang Dan, seated on a sofa, weak from hunger, nevertheless summoning the strength -- and the courage -- to publicly scold Premier Li Peng on national television for ignoring the appeals of his people.

It was that event, that public humiliation and loss of face, many observers say, that hardened Li Peng's resolve to quickly crush the democracy movement. Regardless of whether he gave the army its orders, Li will forever be linked with the carnage in Tiananmen Square.

It was a scant two years before that many within China, as well as in the international community, were surprised to learn paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had elevated Li to acting premier. The choice was unusual because at first glance Li did not appear to share Deng's advocacy of economic reform.

Chou En-lai's foster son

Li and Tung
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, left, takes an oath before Li during handover ceremonies in 1997  

A true conservative, an avowed adherent to orthodox Communist ideology, Hakka Li Peng was born October 20, 1928, in Chengdu, seat of China's Sichuan Province. His father, Li Shuo-hsin, was a writer with Communist sympathies who was executed in 1930 by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.

The fatherless young Li enjoyed a reversal in fortune when in 1939 he became the foster son of Chou En-lai, the future premier of Communist China and one of its legendary figures. In 1948 Li was sent to the Soviet Union where he studied at the Moscow Power Institute, returning in 1955 to a China firmly under Communist control.

Until 1979 he supervised a number of major power projects across the country. Chou, Li's foster father, died in 1976, but his widow Deng Yingchao exerted her own powerful influence to push Li higher and higher in the Communist hierarchy.

Li joined the party's Central Committee in 1982. Three years later he became an elected member of the Politburo and the Secretariat of the Communist Party's 12th Central Committee. That same year, 1985, Li was named minister of the State Education Commission.

A defender of central control

The rise to power continued. In 1987 Li became a member of the Politburo's powerful standing committee, and a year later Deng Xiaoping picked Li to succeed Zhao Ziyang as prime minister after Zhao became the Communist Party's general secretary. Ironically, Li Peng would play a major role in Zhao Ziyang's fall from grace just two years later, after the latter openly sympathized with the Tiananmen Square student protesters.


Li had long stressed a cautious approach to economic liberalization. He wanted to maintain economic and political stability under an omnipresent central government. When the Beijing protests broke out in April 1989, Li was the fiercest advocate of suppressing the demonstrations, by force if necessary.

Deng, who feared that his hard-fought economic reforms and vision for China might be destroyed by political instability, apparently agreed. Against the advice and appeals of the party's liberal wing, Li Peng -- by most accounts with Deng's outright blessing -- declared martial law in Beijing on May 20. In early June, after weeks of protests demanding Li's ouster, armed forces rolled into central Beijing.

Crackdown ensured longevity

The crackdown was an international public relations disaster for China, one that reverberates to this day. And so it does for Li, in another twist of irony. Many observers say that despite the worldwide condemnation, the crackdown actually ensured Li's political longevity.

James Miles, a veteran China-watcher, describes it thus:

"After Tiananmen, it's remarkable that Li Peng continued to remain so powerful even though he'd been the main target of the protesters at that time. He managed to cling on, not least because the leadership felt that by getting rid of him they would be effectively admitting they had made a mistake in 1989 by suppressing the protest. The best way to convince the outside world they remained stable, united and committed to the verdict they reached in 1989 was to keep Li Peng in the top echelons of the party."

Li and wife
Li and his wife, Zhu Lin, arrive for a visit to Tokyo in November 1997  

Li would go on to describe the 1989 crackdown as a historic victory for communism against those who would sabotage all that China had fought for during and after the revolution.

In matters economic, however, Li was pushed toward embracing change. Realizing perhaps that his opposition to further reform would jeopardize his political standing in the post-Tiananmen period, Li became an enthusiastic supporter, in public at least, of the course charted by Deng.

It was this late conversion to economic reform that perhaps saved Li Peng's job. He was reappointed premier at the Communist Party's 1993 convention, despite an unusually large protest vote that favored Zhu Rongji, a champion of economic -- and many suspect, political -- reform who would eventually succeed Li in 1998.

Still a power to contend with

In China, power ultimately resides with the Communist Party. Despite Premier Zhu Rongji's desire to modernize, he must tread a careful course because he is perceived by hard-liners as being too liberal and Western-leaning.

President Jiang Zemin exerts a powerful hold on the party, observers say, deftly playing its various wings against each other.

In this scenario, Li Peng holds the Communist Party's No. 2 post, higher than that of Zhu. Though he is not in the public eye any more, and has long been a figure of scorn and suspicion in China and abroad, Li Peng remains a player to contend with.

Profile: Lee Teng-hui »

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