Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Butcher of Beijing

A diary allegedly written by Li Peng during the Tiananmen protests in Beijing, June 1989, is about to be published in Hong Kong. Li Peng was China’s premier at the time of the massacre, thus earning himself the nickname ‘Butcher of Beijing’. Excerpts of the publication have been circulating on the internet and have led commentators to suggest the diary will do little to help Li Peng, currently very ill, shed that moniker.

When student-led protests threatened to escalate out of control in central Beijing in late May and early June 1989, the Chinese government was divided as to how to respond. The premier Li Peng favoured military force. He had taken over the premiership from Zhao Ziyang in 1987 (and continued in office until 1998). The still powerful General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, however, took a more dovish approach and showed some support for the demonstrators. Li Peng’s view prevailed, Zhao Ziyang’s political stock sank further, and upwards of 3,000 people may have been killed.

There was international outrage at the time; and a scar still remains today in the sense that many people round the world only know the name Tiananmen Square because of the massacre. (The outrage in 1989, however, did not last long enough to stop China being awarded the 2008 Olympic Games in 2001.) See Wikipedia for more on Li Peng and the Tiananmen Square protests.

The Hong Kong-based New Century Press is set to publish, later in June, a diary kept by Li Peng at the time of the protests. Excerpts of the diary, which most commentators believe is genuine, have been circulating on the internet, and were picked up by the press agency AFP (as reported by On 1 June, Li Peng writes: ‘The unrest now in Beijing is the biggest chaos since the nation was established’; and ‘The loss of control in this situation has gone beyond the Great Cultural Revolution’. While attempting to mediate a political solution to end the protests, Li Peng reveals in the diary, he is massing 25,000 troops in buildings around the square - ‘a force surrounding Tiananmen on all four sides’.

A BBC article also provides some quotes: ‘From the beginning of the turmoil, I have prepared for the worst, . . . I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.’

The man behind the publishing project, Bao Pu, of New Century Press, is a prominent human rights activist, and the son of Bao Tong, a senior advisor to the head of the Chinese Communist Party at the time of the Tiananmen protests. He told AFP that the diaries show ‘Li participated in the decision-making throughout the process and he was also the one who carried out these decisions. This all came out very, very clear in details that we previously did not know.’

The BBC quotes Bao Pu as saying the diary ‘provides amazing details of how decisions were made and how the order was carried out, and how the leaders reached internal consensus’; and that ‘these are the kind of things that are not in official records’.

According to the South China Morning Post, Li Peng’s diary (15 April to 24 June 1989) was ready for publication in 2004, but the move was blocked by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Originally entitled The Critical Moment, it has now been renamed Li Peng’s June 4 Diary, and will be released on 22 June.

Postscript: Three days before publication in Hong Kong the book was blocked; however, subsequently it was published in the US under the title, The Critical Moment. 

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