By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: March 11, 2003
The chief of China's Parliament, Li Peng, gave his last major speech as a central leader today, effectively ending his long political career.
Whatever his achievements as a legislator, Mr. Li will be forever widely despised as the leader who announced the imposition of martial law in June 1989, signaling the army's arrival in Beijing to break up pro-democracy student protests in Tiananmen Square.
In recent years, he has also been accused of corruption and nepotism, particularly concerning the involvement of his wife and sons in state-owned power companies.
Mr. Li's departure is a watershed of sorts in that he was the last Communist hard-liner in a top leadership position. But, in practical terms, his absence will not make much difference because his faction has already lost nearly all its influence.
''It is good for China that Li Peng is retiring,'' said a senior newspaper editor. ''Some people see him as a symbol of the massacre, the chief planner. I don't think it's as simple as that, but his retirement takes one obstacle to a re-evaluation out of the way.''
Mr. Li, 74, is expected to be replaced by Wu Bangguo, 61, who is widely regarded as more liberal and open to reform. ''The retirement of Li Peng takes away the key representative of the leftist faction,'' the editor said. ''I think Wu Bangguo is certain to be more open than him.''
Today, Mr. Li presented to China's Legislature his report on the achievements of the Ninth National People's Congress, which closes its five-year term next week. He said the Congress, China's legislative body, had written dozens of laws, monitored government budgets, and helped create China's emerging court system, noting that a ''socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics'' is taking shape.
He also announced the approval of a plan to restructure the government, which will reduce the number of ministries by 1 to 28.
Mr. Li departed from his formal scripted presentation to add a word of advice to his successors. ''The pupil often surpasses the master,'' he said. ''I believe that the work of the 10th National People's Congress will be even better than the work of the Ninth National People's Congress, even more outstanding.''
Mr. Li is the last of the classic old breed of Communist Party officials, whose authority derives almost entirely from personal links with the 1949 revolution that brought the Communists to power. An orphan, he was raised by Zhou Enlai, China's revered first prime minister and a revolutionary hero.
A Russian-trained engineer, Mr. Li was never an enthusiastic supporter of China's opening to the outside world or its economic reforms. In 1989, as student protesters gathered day in and day out in Tiananmen Square demanding democracy, it was natural that he would become the government's enforcer.
Then China's prime minister, he supported the use of military force to quell the students, a decision that led to the deaths of hundreds, if not more. Human rights advocates have been demanding his resignation ever since, giving him the sobriquet, ''The Butcher of Beijing.''
In Beijing, he is also widely hated for his family's ties to China's lucrative power industry. Many scholars here believe that the central government has been reluctant to pursue other high-level corruption cases for fear it would be criticized for allowing Mr. Li to remain in office.
''Li Peng's retirement will take away the protection enjoyed by corrupt officials,'' the editor said.