Li Peng, the former Premier of China, known for declaring martial law and calling in China’s military to suppress pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, has died at age 90.
The Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, which earned Li the nickname “Butcher of Beijing,” gave much of the world its first televised glimpse into the hardline, authoritarian character of communist China. The number of pro-democracy supporters killed in the massacre, many of whom were young students, has been disputed. However, global human rights organizations estimate the death toll to be several thousand.
Li was known to be unapologetic for ordering tanks and soldiers wielding machine guns to end the demonstrations in Beijing that had been building for weeks. The student-led protests had posed the greatest challenge to the communist party’s rule during the first three decades following China’s cultural revolution. While Li Peng is recognized for having a prominent role in ordering the massacre, he also had the full support of then-top leader Deng Xiaoping.
China state media are heavily censoring news and social media reactions to the passing of Li Peng, as the party still suppresses discussion about the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years later. However, Xinhua News Agency, the official party news organization, praised Li Peng as a “seasoned and loyal soldier of communism” and “distinguished revolutionary.”
Li’s death comes just weeks after more than two million people in Hong Kong stepped forward to protest a proposed extradition law that would expand mainland China’s legal authority in the Special Administrative Region. The month-long protests are seen by many in Hong Kong as just the beginning of a long-term struggle to preserve Hong Kong’s basic freedoms.