China's prime minister regains face Li Peng overcomes specter of Tiananmen

January 30, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- When Chinese Premier Li Peng meets tomorrow with global leaders at the unprecedented United Nations summit meeting in New York, it will represent another step in one of the world's most remarkable political comebacks.

Only 2 1/2 years ago -- when the Chinese army slaughtered at least hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators on Beijing's streets -- Mr. Li was widely reviled here and abroad as "the most hated man in China."

Angrily declaring martial law in Beijing on Chinese TV just before that crackdown, he came across as stiff, dim and more than eager to do the dirty work of China's most conservative elders, to whom he owes his ascent to power.

Since then, however, the 63-year-old, Soviet-trained engineer has confounded his many critics.

He not only has continued as the Chinese government's top executive, but he appears to have grown into the job, to have consolidated his power base and to even relax at times in both public appearances and private meetings with foreigners.

The visit to the United Nations, where he wants a private meeting with President Bush, will crown a nine-day tour that includes official receptions in Italy, Switzerland, Portugal and Spain -- as well as speaking at the opening of the World Economic Forum, also in Switzerland.

Public demonstrations against Mr. Li for his role in the ruthless suppression of dissidents have occurred everywhere along the way in his first trip to the West since the Tiananmen massacre. But the tour that culminates tomorrow with public meetings at the United Nations with Mr. Bush, British Prime Minister John Major and 12 other world leaders will inescapably add to both his and China's renewed international legitimacy.

A private meeting with Mr. Bush, which administration officials say the president intends to have, will add a further measure of respectability to the Chinese prime minister.

"It's such a triumph for him that it's really just unbelieveable," a Western European diplomat remarked here this week."

Within China, Mr. Li's standing has already benefited from several factors: continued rapid economic development, a Western-style media campaign to humanize his image, and the fall of Soviet communism, which provoked a renewed commitment here to forestalling leadership changes.

Internationally, China has leveraged its way back onto the world stage over the past few years, in large part due to its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and the considerable skill of Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

Mr. Li has been the front man for this process, traveling to Southeast Asia and India, playing host to the leaders of Britain and Japan and meeting with U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Many Chinese still hold hard feelings toward Mr. Li, as evidenced by the continued popularity here of jokes that often compare him to pigs. "The common people still remember what Li did," said a Beijing noodle shop owner in his 30s. "He gave the order to fire on the students -- unarmed students."

Abroad, Mr. Li and China also remain tainted. France turned down a Chinese request to receive Mr. Li during his current tour, and Portugal tried unsuccessfully to delay his visit, Western diplomats said here.

At his first two stops in Italy and Switzerland earlier this week, Mr. Li was met by protesters.

And outside the United Nations tomorrow, Mr. Li is likely to be confronted by more than 20 overseas Chinese and Tibetan protest groups, one of which intends to hold him accountable for the Tiananmen killings by staging a street-side mock "trial."

China tried last weekend to smooth Mr. Li's path toward goodwill by leaking to Westerners news that in late November it had released nine more jailed Tiananmen protesters. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other protesters remain in Chinese jails or labor camps.

Internally, the Chinese press is already playing up Mr. Li's statesmanship, in line with a yearlong media blitz here to soften his image. This campaign has stressed his ties to his first benefactor, the revered former Premier Chou En-lai, and revealed such personal tidbits as Mr. Li's wife's considering him "O model husband." But it will take more than propaganda for Mr. Li to achieve a second, five-year term as premier when his first term ends in March 1993. A decision on his political future likely awaits the outcome of a major Communist Party congress later this year.

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