Death of mayor blamed for Tiananmen crackdown

Chen Xitong (82) had been on medical parole since 2006

An anti-government protester stands in front of artillery tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5th, 1989, at the height of the pro-democracy protests. Chen Xitong was mayor of Beijing at the time of the crackdown, and was subsequently promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member. Photograph: AP Photo/Jeff Widener

An anti-government protester stands in front of artillery tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5th, 1989, at the height of the pro-democracy protests. Chen Xitong was mayor of Beijing at the time of the crackdown, and was subsequently promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member. Photograph: AP Photo/Jeff Widener

Thu, Jun 6, 2013, 01:00

There was bitter poetry in the timing of the death of disgraced former mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, after reports of his death began to emerge just hours after the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of democracy activists, a crackdown that he orchestrated.

Chen, whose name was inextricably linked to the crackdown on June 4th, 1989, in which hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed, died of colon cancer aged 82. He had been on medical parole since 2006, and was not far off completing a 16-year sentence for corruption handed down in 1998.

He was mayor of Beijing at the time of the crackdown, and was subsequently promoted to Beijing party secretary and made a Politburo member. While much of the blame for the massacre in the popular imagination lies with the then-premier Li Peng, Chen was a hate figure for those involved in the demonstrations in Beijing in those fateful months in June, 24 years ago.


Powful cadre
In his diary, Li Peng, a still-powerful cadre in the party hierarchy, who was certainly one of the key decision makers at the time of the crackdown and is known as “the Butcher of Beijing”, fingered Chen as the director of the headquarters in charge of the crackdown.

Former party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was put under house arrest for sympathising with the students, in his memoir also blamed Chen for the crackdown.

Chen’s reputation was destroyed when he was sentenced to jail in 1995 for corruption, making him one of the three highest-ranking party officials – together with Shanghai boss Chen Liangyu and former rising star in the Communist Party firmament Bo Xilai – to be brought down by graft charges.


Dark forces
Chen always claimed that he was the agent of dark forces, and in May last year he claimed in a book that the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square was an “avoidable tragedy” and said he regretted the loss of life.

He gave a series of eight interviews with the scholar Yao Jianfu in which he claimed to have known little about the decisions made behind the scenes and insisted he was only following orders.

“Nobody should have died if it was handled properly,” Chen told Mr Yao at the time.

“Several hundred people died on that day. As the mayor, I felt sorry. I hoped we could have solved the case peacefully. Many things are still not clear, but I believe one day the truth will come out.”

Although there was no information in mainland China about the death of Chen, the news was carried on HKCNA, a semi-official central government mouthpiece, as well as the South China Morning Post newspaper, in Hong Kong.