Former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, the highest-ranking Chinese official to be jailed for corruption, has died of cancer two days short of the anniversary of a bloody military crackdown which he had backed.
Chen, who was 83, died on Sunday at his Beijing home after being released on medical parole in 2006, two days ahead of the 24th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 bloodshed, official media reported Wednesday.
A prominent hard-liner and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's elite decision-making body, the Politburo, Chen was strongly in favor of sending in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to end weeks of unarmed protests and hunger strikes on Tiananmen Square.
He later made a speech to parliament enshrining the official version of the crackdown, during which enraged local residents took on the tanks and machine guns of the PLA's 27th army with bricks, homemade weapons, and petrol bombs.
While reform-minded premier Zhao Ziyang, who advocated a negotiated settlement with the student-led protesters, was on a visit to neighboring North Korea, hardliners including Chen carried out the orders of then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, and styled the protests a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," a verdict which is not often referred to but which has never been revoked.
Former 1989 student protester and Beijing activist Zha Jianguo said Beijing residents had felt betrayed by Chen.
"We all feel that Chen Xitong opposed the students on June 4, standing against them on the side of the hard-liners inside the Party," Zha said.
"He definitely bears some responsibility for the bloodshed of June 4, but we don't have enough details to determine exactly how much responsibility."
And Shenzhen-based former 1989 student leader Ma Shaofang said he believed the timing of Chen's death was "divine justice."
"Out of all those dead souls, many of which he helped create, he is the only one who bears responsibility," Ma said.
"I think that, as the highest-ranking executive official in the Beijing municipal government, he can't place the responsibility anywhere else."
Chen said in a book published last year by writer Yao Jianfu that the tragedy was regrettable, and denied being strongly behind the plan to end the protests by force.
Yao told RFA's Cantonese Service on Wednesday that the last time he had visited the ailing ex-mayor in February, he was in the Beijing Military District Hospital.
"At the beginning of this year, at Spring Festival, I went to a hospital in the Beijing Military District," Yao said. "His family told me it was for the peace and quiet."
He said he had been unable to contact Chen's relatives in the wake of the announcement of his death, however.
In Yao's book, titled Conversations with Chen Xitong, Chen described the loss of hundreds of lives as a tragedy that could have been avoided.
According to The Tiananmen Papers, an account of the June 4 crackdown attributed to disguised high-ranking Party source "Zhang Liang" and endorsed by U.S. China experts Perry Link and Andrew Nathan, Chen was present at a June 3 meeting that arranged the details of the crackdown, although the decision had been taken by the highest echelons of leadership the day before.
"Comrade Li Peng has it exactly right: A counterrevolutionary riot has broken out in Beijing," Chen is quoted as telling the meeting.
"The situation has become utterly intolerable, so we have to take resolute measures at whatever cost to put down this counterrevolutionary riot," he is quoted as saying.
After the PLA succeeded in carrying out Deng's order to clear Beijing of troublemakers by dawn, according to this account, Chen was promoted to the Politburo.
He was then detained and investigated in the mid-1990s following the suicide of his deputy mayor Wang Baosen amid a U.S.$37 million corruption scandal.
He was jailed for 16 years in 1998 after being found guilty of bribe-taking and spending millions of dollars in public funds on luxury villas around Beijing.
On his expulsion from the Politburo, the official Xinhua news agency wrote of Chen that he had made "serious" mistakes.
"He...led a dissolute, extravagant life, abused his power to seek illegal interests for his relatives and accepted valuable gifts for his own use by taking advantage of his position and while performing his public duties," the agency said in a commentary.
Chen was sentenced to 16 years in prison by the Beijing Municipal Higher People's Court on July 31, 1998. He was released on medical parole on May 31, 2006.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.