BEIJING — Premier Li Peng, a graceless technocrat who may well be China's most disliked man, was approved by the country's rubber-stamp Parliament on Sunday for a second five-year term as premier.
Li, 64, has confounded his critics ever since late May of 1989, when more than 100,000 demonstrators demanding his ouster defied martial law to gather in Tian An Men Square. Li played a prominent role in urging elderly hard-liners centered around senior leader Deng Xiaoping to use the army to crush the protests, which was finally done at a heavy cost in lives.
Many Beijing citizens' feelings were reflected in mid-1989 comments by Yan Jiaqi, a political scientist who had been a top government adviser, when he predicted from exile that Li's days in office were numbered. "Sooner or later, (Deng) has to find a scapegoat (for the massacre)," Yan wrote. "Sooner or later the stupid and incapable Li Peng will be sacrificed."
Some analysts now believe that Li's close association with the 1989 massacre has actually helped him hold onto office, because his ouster would be interpreted at home and abroad as a partial repudiation of the crackdown itself. Deng is believed to fear that any such step could lead to an unraveling of the Communist Party's hold on power.
But other factors are also at work. Li has developed an image as a hard worker who understands China's giant government bureaucracy. His presence in the top leadership may help ensure the loyalty of the party's less reformist wing to Deng's overall program.
Li initially became unpopular in the late 1980s, not because of any clearly proven incompetence but rather because of an abrasive manner, poor public speaking skills and close links to elderly hard-liners. He also was resented because his rapid rise was often attributed to his close relationship with the late Premier Chou En-lai and Chou's wife, Deng Yingchau.
Li's continuing unpopularity was reflected in the unusually high number of votes cast against him Sunday in the tightly controlled legislature. The only nominee, he was approved by 2,573 votes, with 210 opposed and 120 abstentions.
Li is fortunate that during his five years as premier, he has presided over an extraordinarily successful period of economic expansion. In a speech earlier this month to the National People's Congress, the body that approved his reelection Sunday, he noted that annual economic growth during this period averaged 7.9%.
Li is associated with a more cautious approach to economic reform than many other Chinese leaders, but in the past year, his speeches have become decidedly more reformist.