Li Peng, who arrives in Cambodia today, has been called “the great survivor of Chinese politics.” He’s also been called “the butcher of Tiananmen.”
As chairman of the National People’s Congress and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, he is second in line behind President Jiang Zemin within the Communist Party, just ahead of Prime Minister Zhu Rongji.
He is the fourth top Chinese official to visit Cambodia in the past six months. Embassy officials have declined to speculate on what the rush of visits from the top leadership might mean.
“Li Peng is a good guy,” is all one official would say. “He’s coming to Cambodia just to visit.”
A Chinese businessman, however, says Li’s visit shows a strengthening of the ties between the two countries.
“This is a good sign for Cambodia,” said Yum Sui Sang, president of the China, Hong Kong and Macau Business Association of Cambodia. “He is a powerful man in China, although many people don’t like him because of June 4.”
June 4, 1989, was the date Chinese troops fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The image of a young man standing defiantly in front of a Chinese tank was flashed around the world, creating a public relations disaster for China that reverberates to this day.
The action was deeply unpopular within China as well, and Li was blamed for causing the deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of demonstrators.
Li was serving the first of his two five-year terms as China’s premier when the uprising began. He became one of its primary targets, with students publicly criticizing him and calling for his ouster.
According to a controversial new book, “The Tiananmen Papers,” in the days leading up to June 4, 1989, party leaders argued bitterly over how hard to crack down on the demonstrations.
While leaders like Zhao Ziyang, the party’s general secretary, pushed for restraint, conservative hard-liners led by Li insisted the movement must be crushed.
“The Tiananmen Papers” presents a detailed account of actions taken by China’s reclusive leaders during the student rebellion. Scholars are not sure yet whether it is a legitimate insider’s account or a skillful fake like the Hitler Diaries of the 1980s.
But so far, it appears to be a factual account based on leaked government documents, much like the Pentagon Papers’ depiction of backstage maneuverings over Vietnam in the US during the 1970s.
The book depicts Li as adroitly manipulating the late Deng Xiaoping into supporting a harsh crackdown, as he tells the then 83-year-old leader that students are criticizing all the party stands for.
“The spear is now pointed directly at you and the others of the elder generation,” he said.
According to CNN, Time and Asiaweek, Li Peng is widely disliked in China, in part because of Tiananmen and also because some of his relatives and proteges are suspected of corruption.
Born in 1928 in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, he was the son of Li Shuo-hsin, a communist writer who was executed in 1930 by the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party.
Li Shuo-hsin’s best friend was Zhou En-Lai, who later became premier of communist China. According to the biography of Zhou En-Lai’s wife, Deng Ying-Chao, when she told the little boy that his father had been killed, he cried and cried.
Then she said to him, “Your father was very brave and fearless until he died. You are his son and you should not feel sad. From now on, I’ll become your mother and Zhou En-Lai will become your father.”
They did, in fact, adopt him, and he grew up at the heart of Chinese communism. He studied engineering in Moscow, returning to China in 1955 and supervising major power projects until 1979, when he began his rapid rise in politics.
Analysts characterize him as an old-style communist, conservative and cautious, advocating a gradual approach to economic liberalization under a powerful central government.
Veteran China-Watcher James Miles told CNN in 1999 that Li’s central role in the Tiananmen crackdown may be one reason he still clings to power.
Party leaders, Miles said, “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 in the top echelons of the party.”
By 1993, however, he had begun to advocate economic change, which analysts say may be one reason he gained a second five-year term as premier.
In 1994, he suffered a heart attack, leading some to think he might step down. He completed his term, however, and moved on to head the National People’s Congress in 1998.
One Western political analyst said Li has tried to soften his image in recent years, traveling extensively and even kissing babies. But he remains “rigid, with no sense of humor whatsoever,” the analyst said.
Others say Li has lost influence within the last six months, due to rumors within China about shady business dealings involving his relatives and underlings.
A party member told CNN in January that Li was expected to step down from the Politburo’s standing committee at the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year, and from the NPC shortly thereafter.
But, the source said, Li is lobbying hard to retain a high position or to place a protege on the Politburo, due to his family’s vulnerability on the corruption issue.
(Additional reporting by Ana Nov)