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Date Posted: 00:24 22/07/2005

Look before you Li Peng

China's bogeyman writes his third memoir

LI PENG always performed a crucial but unenviable role in post-Mao Chinese politics. The butt of samizdat satire, and the perennial bad cop in the process of China's modernization, Li Peng has shouldered the burden of blame for the Three Gorges Project and the corruption and abuse that has surrounded it, and is also regarded as the prime mover behind the crackdown on Tian'anmen Square and the subsequent removal of President Zhao Ziyang. He was, indeed, blamed for the departure of Zhao's predecessor, Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the 1989 protests in the first place.

The division between the good guys and the bad guys is a common one in the history of Communism, with a series of displaced, martyred, purged or marginalized leaders serving to preserve the image of the promised land in the minds of western idealists, even in the blemished, corrupt face of 'actually existing socialism'. In such a fashion, Lenin was preferred over Stalin, Che Guevara over Fidel Castro, and pre-revolutionary Mao over Emperor Mao.

At any rate, throughout his tenure in the higher echelons of the Chinese Politburo, Li Peng was viewed as the scourge of reformers, including Hu and Zhao, and as such, became the bogeyman of progress, and a convenient scapegoat capable of deflecting blame from more popular leaders, including Hu, Zhao, the liberal ex-CPPCC boss Li Ruihuan and the former Premier, Zhu Rongji. He also spoke out against the appointment of Wen Jiabao, the latest hero of reform, when Wen was put forward for a vice-premiership position in 1993. Indeed, so inextricably is Li Peng connected with some of the more controversial moments of recent Chinese history, he could well be the first to be incriminated should the Party ever decide to enact another 'reversal of verdicts'.

Probably with this in mind, Li Peng has been trying to rehabilitate himself of late. His plans to publish an account of his role in the bloody 'restoration of order' on Tian'anmen Square were quashed by the Party Elders, but he has already published diaries relating to the Three Gorges Project and the development of nuclear power. Last week, he released his latest volume, entitled Electric Power Must Go First: The Electric Power Diary of Li Peng. To his credit, the proceeds from the sale of the three books will be donated to poor children.

Last year, on the centenary of Deng Xiaoping's birth, Li Peng took the opportunity to note that the events and projects with which he was most associated – including both Tian'anmen and the Three Gorges – were actually the responsibility of Deng himself. He took care to present this attribution of guilt as an modest act of praise for a superior revolutionary spirit, praising the old patriarch's decisiveness at key moments and his peerless contribution to China’s economic growth and social stability. Li Peng has also admitted that he suffered a breakdown after the events in June, 1989.

Li Peng's obsession with electricity is understandable. After all, he studied the subject at the Moscow Power Institute beginning in 1948, and as they say, if all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. He moved up the ranks of the government before becoming the deputy minister of power in 1979.

He was the most vocal supporter of the Three Gorges Project, the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world, necessitating the relocation of more than a million people. He even said in his diary that he studied hydropower in the first place 'because I already knew then that China wanted to build the Three Gorges Project'.

Li Peng's connections with the power industry still run deep. His daughter, Li Xiaolin, heads China Power International, one of the biggest electricity companies in China. His son, Li Xiaopeng, is the boss of an even bigger electricity company, Huaneng Power International. Both have been accused of using their family connections to secure lucrative contracts, including some with the Three Gorges Project Corporation.

Li Xiaopeng's name has recently emerged in connection with the events in Dingzhou, Hebei Province, where several dozen thugs were recruited to remove protestors from the site of a power station owned by Huaneng, killing six farmers in the process. The Hong Kong-based Apple Daily have suggested, without much in the way of evidence, that Li Xiaopeng may well have been behind the decision to drive the villagers off the land.

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