China legislator ends contentious career

As premier, Li backed use of military force to quell 1989 Tiananmen protests

March 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING - The head of China's national legislature, Li Peng, gave his last major speech as a central leader yesterday, effectively ending a long and contentious political career.

Whatever his achievements as a legislator, Li will be forever despised here and abroad as the leader who announced the imposition of martial law in June 1989, signaling the army's arrival in Beijing to break up pro-democracy student protests around Tiananmen Square.

In recent years he has also faced allegations of corruption and nepotism, particularly concerning the involvement of his wife and sons in state-owned power companies.

Li's departure marks a watershed of sorts in that he was the last Communist hard-liner in a top leadership position. But, in practical terms, his absence will not make much difference because this faction has already lost nearly all its influence in recent years.

"It is good for China that Li Peng is retiring," said a senior newspaper editor who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Some people see him as a symbol of the massacre, the chief planner. I don't think it's as simple as that, but his retirement takes one obstacle to a re-evaluation out of the way."

Li, 74, is expected to be replaced by Wu Bangguo, 61, who is widely regarded as more reform-minded and liberal. "The retirement of Li Peng takes away the key representative of the leftist faction," the editor said. "I think Wu Bangguo is certain to be more open than him."

Yesterday, Li presented to the legislature his report on the achievements of the ninth National People's Congress, which closes its five-year term next week. He said the congress, China's legislative body, had written dozens of laws, monitored government budgets and helped create China's emerging court system, noting that "a socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics is initially taking shape."

He also announced the approval of a plan to restructure the government, which will reduce the number of ministries from 29 to 28.

Known as a stiff politician, Li nonetheless departed from his scripted presentation to add a word of advice to his successors.

"The pupil often surpasses the master," he said. "I believe that the work of the 10th National People's Congress will be even better than the work of the ninth National People's Congress, even more outstanding."

In 1989, as student protesters gathered around Tiananmen Square demanding democracy, it was natural that Li would become the government's bad cop.

Then prime minister, he supported the use of military force to quell the students, a decision that led to the deaths of hundreds, if not more. Human rights activists here and abroad have been demanding his resignation ever since, giving him the sobriquet, "The Butcher of Beijing."

In Beijing, he is generally hated for that, as well as for the corruption allegations.

Many scholars believe that the central government has been reluctant to investigate and pursue high-level corruption cases, for fear that it would be criticized for allowing Li to remain in office. "Li Peng's retirement will take away the protection enjoyed by corrupt officials," the editor said.

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