The Legacy of Li Peng in Chinese Politics

Image: Li Peng during a May 18, 1989 meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People with student leaders of the spring 1989 protest movement. The meeting turned confrontational, with protest leaders berating Li and other government representatives, and Li angrily stating that Beijing was slipping into chaos. Li’s personal humiliation from the experience likely reinforced his intent to deal harshly with the protestors. (Source: ABC News/Youtube)

Introduction

Amid a flurry of late July news stories related to China—to include continuing unrest in Hong Kong, U.S.-China trade talks, and joint Sino-Russian military flights over the Sea of Japan that touched off a confrontation with Republic of Korea aircraft (China Brief, July 30)—the death of former People’s Republic of China (PRC) Premier Li Peng (李鵬) received minimal attention in the international press. However, Li’s passing on July 22, succumbing to an unspecified illness at the age of 90, was treated with great solemnity by the authorities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): flags around the country were flown at half-staff, and the country’s top CCP officials lined up to pay official respects at memorial events held at Beijing’s Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery (China Daily, July 30).

Li Peng’s official obituary was filled with effusive praise for an “outstanding Communist Party member, a loyal Communist warrior who endured many trials, a prominent proletarian revolutionary, statesman, and brilliant party and national leader” (People’s Daily, July 24). However, in stark contrast to the plaudits offered to Li’s memory by PRC state media, Li had been widely reviled at both home and abroad as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his prominent role in the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1989. He had also attracted deep unpopularity for his dour image, his stalwart opposition to political reform, and the nepotism and alleged corruption involved in the prominent positions held by his children in state-controlled industry (see further discussion below).

Whatever the assessment of Li Peng’s career, he was a significant figure in the history of the PRC as a link between the revolutionary generation of CCP leaders represented by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and the current generation under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. Li Peng was a prominent contributor to decisions made in the top echelons of the CCP in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—decisions that set the trajectory for Chinese politics down to the present day.

Image: The PRC flag flies at half-mast in Tiananmen Square in official remembrance for former PRC Premier Li Peng, who died on July 22. (Source: Xinhua)

Li Peng’s Early Career

Li Peng, like so many others who rose to prominence in PRC politics from the 1980s onwards, was a princeling: he was the adopted son of Zhou Enlai, the PRC’s longtime premier and a skilled political survivor of the purges that destroyed many other prominent Communists of the revolutionary generation. Li Peng spent the years 1948-1955 training as a hydraulic engineer in the Soviet Union, and then spent the next quarter century as an engineer and party official managing hydro-electric and power plant projects throughout China. Li entered leadership politics in the early 1980s with appointment as the PRC Minister of Power Industry, and a seat on the CCP’s 12th Central Committee (China Vitae, undated).

Under the patronage of then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Li was appointed PRC Premier in 1987 following the removal of CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was sacked from his position due to high-level opposition that formed in the Party against Hu’s reformist policies. This likely provided another lesson to Li that success lay in cultivating close allegiance to Deng, and in avoiding the taint of any “bourgeois” inclinations towards political reform. Furthermore, as Hu Yaobang was also one of the leading patrons of a rising young official named Hu Jintao (no relation), these events may have set the stage for future enmity between Li Peng and Hu Jintao (see further discussion below).

Li’s Role in the June 1989 Massacre

In the spring of 1989, mass anti-corruption, pro-democracy protests swept throughout China following the death of Hu Yaobang. The senior CCP leadership was deeply divided over the protests, but Li sided firmly with a hardline group of party elders—to include Yao Yilin, Chen Yun, Yang Shangkun, and Deng himself—who favored imposition of martial law and the use of the military to disperse the demonstrations by force. [1] In late April 1989, while then-CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was away on a trip to North Korea, Li Peng played a prominent role in guiding the party leadership towards a hardline stance on the protests, leading to the landmark April 26, 1989 People’s Daily editorial that officially condemned the demonstrations as “turmoil” (动乱, dongluan). [2]

As state premier, Li issued the May 20, 1989 order for the imposition of martial law in Beijing (China Brief, June 4), and defended the decision in a fiery televised speech as a necessary step to save China from anarchy (Youtube, speech dated May 20, 1989). These steps helped to make Li the public face of the martial law decree and subsequent June 4 massacre. Li Peng certainly bears a strong share of culpability for the Tiananmen Massacre, but in 1989 he possessed less real authority than did more powerful figures who pressed forward the military crackdown from behind the scenes. However, Li’s television appearances, arrogant demeanor, shrill voice, and harsh rhetoric all made him the perfect figure upon whom both domestic and foreign audiences might affix blame—rather than directing anger at the more charismatic “architect of reform” Deng Xiaoping, and his fellow elders (SCMP, July 25).

Li Peng’s Role in the Jiang Zemin Years

One of the most lasting aspects of Li Peng’s legacy was his loose alliance with Jiang Zemin while the two men were in office together (Li as PRC Premier from 1987-1998, and then Chairman of the National Peoples’ Congress from 1998 until 2003; and Jiang as CCP General Secretary from 1989-2002). Early in Jiang’s tenure, Li was reportedly dismissive of his nominal superior—and wielded a powerful voice that sometimes trumped that of Jiang on major policy issues. However, Li Peng’s attitude and actions gradually shifted throughout the 1990s as Jiang shored up his position as party leader. Li benefitted from Jiang’s support in assuming the NPC chairmanship, and he returned the favor by backing Jiang in 2002 when the latter resisted calls from within the Party for his full retirement, thereby allowing Jiang to direct the military for two more years (China Brief, October 10, 2014). [3]

Li Peng was an advocate of firm state control over the economy, and during his tenure as premier took a conservative approach to the restructuring of state enterprises. Li Peng also offered support to conservative officials, as with the example of Wu Bangguo (a protégé of Jiang Zemin, who later rose to number two in the CCP hierarchy under Hu Jintao), who emerged to prominence in the late 1990s as vice-premier in charge of state industry. Li supported both Wu’s go-slow approach to state enterprise reform, as well as Wu’s rigid position on maintaining the CCP’s absolute control over politics and Chinese society (China Brief, October 10, 2014).

Li Peng in Retirement

In 2007, the opinions of CCP elders were reportedly a decisive factor in Xi Jinping’s selection as the de facto leadership heir apparent at the 17th Party Congress, at the expense of candidates more favored by then-General Secretary Hu Jintao. [4] These deliberations remain opaque, but the domination of Politburo appointments in 2007 and 2012 by officials linked to Jiang Zemin’s patronage network indicated Jiang’s continuing influence—and quite likely, that of his political ally Li Peng. In the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Li Peng and Jiang Zemin were reportedly prominent among the elders who worked to block Hu Jintao’s protégés Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao from receiving seats on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (China Brief, October 23, 2014).

Li Peng’s Princeling Children and Allegations of Corruption

Just as Li’s own career was facilitated by family connections, his children have leveraged Li’s status to rise to prominent positions in the party-state hierarchy and in state-controlled industry. Li’s eldest son Li Xiaopeng (李小鹏, or “Little Peng”) spent most of the 1990s and 2000s as a senior official with the state-owned China Huaneng Power Corporation, eventually rising to become the company chairman. In 2008 he shifted from industry to politics, becoming the Vice-Governor of Shanxi Province; he subsequently advanced to Governor in 2012, and received a seat on the CCP Central Committee in 2017. In 2018 Li Xiaopeng was appointed the PRC Minister of Transportation (China Vitae, undated).

Li’s daughter Li Xiaolin retired in 2018 from her position as Vice-President of China Datang Power Corporation, capping off a 35-year career in the state-owned electrical power industry (Sina News, May 23, 2018). In 2014, her name circulated in international news stories (censored in the PRC) after investigative journalists identified Li Xiaolin as one of many CCP princelings operating shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens in order to hide financial resources of undetermined origin. [5]

China’s energy sector, where the Li children built powerful fiefdoms, has long been one of the most corrupt sectors of PRC state-controlled industry (Reuters, September 21, 2018). Although the Li family would hardly be unique in facing allegations of corruption, its members have been particularly high-profile examples—and as such, helped to shape a normative example of corruption in the upper reaches of the CCP. The Li family also illustrates the nexus between princelings and corruption in state industry and resistance to economic and political reform: potential reforms in either state industry or the political system could threaten well-connected princelings, who exercise influence accordingly to protect their entrenched interests. [6]

Li Peng’s Funeral and the Absence of Hu Jintao

All seven current members of the PBSC—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng—reportedly paid their respects to Li Peng at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the traditional resting place for high officials who die in the official good graces of the Party. They were reportedly joined in this by former PBSC member Wang Qishan and former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin. Pointedly omitted from this list was former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao—who, per state media, was “not in Beijing, [but] sent a wreath to express his condolences” (China Daily, July 30).

Hu Jintao’s reported absence from the memorial ceremonies has led to speculation that the 76 year-old former CCP leader may be in poor health (Nikkei Asian Review, July 30). However, other explanations are also plausible. Li Peng was never a patron to Hu Jintao, and animosity between the two may date all the way back to the downfall of Hu Yaobang in 1987, when Li benefitted from the sacking of Hu Jintao’s primary patron. Furthermore, throughout Hu Jintao’s tenure as CCP General Secretary (2002-2012), Li Peng acted in apparent cooperation behind the scenes with Jiang Zemin to curtail Hu’s authority, and to advance the interests of Jiang’s factional supporters at Hu’s expense.

Additionally, Hu has kept a very low profile since handing over his office to Xi Jinping in 2012—although in the rare instances when Hu did appear in public early in Xi’s tenure, it was often assumed to have political significance (SCMP, April 10, 2014). Aside from a pro forma appearance at the 19th CCP Party Congress in October 2017, Hu has been virtually invisible in recent years—an arrangement that likely suits Xi Jinping, the current holder of Hu’s former offices, quite well.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that Li Peng retired from his last official office in 2003, his legacy continues to exert a lasting influence over Chinese politics. Li threw his weight into the collective decision to unleash the military against pro-democracy protesters in 1989; the resulting massacre and repression that followed set the PRC on a political course that continues to the present day (China Brief, June 4). Li Peng’s official obituary reinforces the fact that the CCP under Xi Jinping remains as rigid as ever regarding the verdict on Tiananmen: Li was praised for “adopting resolute measures to stop the turmoil, to suppress the counter-revolutionary rebellion, to stabilize the country’s domestic situation, [thereby] playing a major role in this great struggle for the future destiny of the party and country” (People’s Daily, July 24).

Many of the salient aspects of contemporary PRC politics—the prominent role of princelings, continued state domination of the economy, assertive nationalism, and a renewed drive for CCP control over virtually all aspects of public life—can be traced back to the political trajectory that commenced in 1989 and continued through the 1990s, when Li’s authority was greatest. Li Peng was only one figure within a broader collective leadership, but he wielded an influential voice in steering the country in the direction of statist economics and resistance to political reform.

Li Peng’s most lasting legacy of all may be his facilitation, alongside Jiang Zemin and other elders, of Xi Jinping’s rise to power. Although Xi’s vast and ongoing anti-corruption campaign cum political purge may have given Jiang Zemin and other patrons reason for buyer’s remorse, Xi’s tenure has embraced the policy positions favored by Li Peng, Wu Bangguo, and other conservatives of the Jiang era. If Xi Jinping is indeed able to make himself a paramount leader for life, as signaled in 2018 by the removal of term limits for the PRC Presidency, then the legacy of Li Peng could endure for many decades more.

The author is grateful to Dr. Larry Wortzel and Dr. Willy Lam for their review and comments on an earlier draft of this article. Any errors or omissions are solely the responsibility of the author.

 John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected].

 Notes

[1] Larry Wortzel, “The Tiananmen Massacre Reappraised: Public Protest, Urban Warfare, and the People’s Liberation Army” in Chinese National Security Decision-Making Under Stress (Wortzell and Scobell, eds.), U.S. Army War College (2005), pp. 55-83. https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/PUB623.pdf.

[2] Central Intelligence Agency, “The Road to the Tiananmen Crackdown: An Analytic Chronology of Chinese Leadership Decision-Making,” report dated September 1989 (declassified March 2000), https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB47/doc13.pdf; and “We Must Raise the Banner to Clearly Oppose Turmoil” [Bixu Qizhi Xianming de Fandui Dongluan, 必须旗帜鲜明地反对动乱], People’s Daily, April 26, 1989,  http://news.ifeng.com/history/today/detail_2010_04/26/1089387_0.shtml.

[3] Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files (New York Review of Books, 2003), pp. 173 and pp. 72-73.

[4] International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), “Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite,” Jan. 21, 2014, https://www.icij.org/investigations/offshore/leaked-records-reveal-offshore-holdings-of-chinas-elite/#; and ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database, entry for Li Peng / Li Xiaolin, undated, https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/stories/li-xiaolin.

[5] See: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2012 Annual Report to Congress, pp. 436-438 and pp. 441-442, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/annual_reports/2012-Report-to-Congress.pdf; and China Digital Times, ‘‘Wikileaks: From Xi Jinping’s Rise to Jiang Zemin’s Buddhism,’’ June 21, 2011, http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2011/06/wikileaks-from-xi-jinpings-rise-to-jiang-zemins-buddhism.

[6] Comments to the author by Dr. Willy Lam; and David Barboza and Sharon LaFraniere, “China ‘Princelings’ Using Family Ties to Gain Riches,” New York Times, May 18, 2012. https://www.pulitzer.org/files/2013/international-reporting/princelings518.pdf.