This photo taken in Beijing in 1991 shows Chinese premier Li Peng as he tries to hear a question during a press conference after the closing of the National People's Congress. Photo: AFP

Former Chinese premier Li Peng, who was known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in 1989’s notorious Tiananmen Square massacre, has died aged 90, state media reported Tuesday.

The former chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, who had previously been treated for bladder cancer, died of an unspecified illness in Beijing on Monday.

Li became a despised symbol of repression after gaining global notoriety for the role he played in the crackdown on mass pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital Beijing on June 4, 1989, and stayed at the top of the Communist regime hierarchy for more than a decade after the massacre.

Li proclaimed martial law on May 20, 1989, after massive crowds of students, workers and others camped for weeks in Tiananmen Square to demand reform.

Two weeks later, on the night of June 3-4, the military put a bloody end to the demonstrations, murdering hundreds of unarmed civilians – by some estimates more than 1,000.

The decision to send in the troops was made collectively, but Li was widely held responsible for the atrocity.

In the years that followed, Li often defended the decision to open fire on the protesters as a “necessary” step.

“Without these measures China would have faced a situation worse than in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe,” he said on a tour of Austria in 1994.

This file photo dated April 22, 1989, shows students gesturing and shouting slogans as they pay their respects in Beijing to former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang as thousands of students gather near the monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Photo: AFP

Despite his noriety, Li remained unchallenged as China’s number two leader through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, second only to then-president Jiang Zemin, as the ruling Communist Party tried to present a united front.

However, it is believed that Li’s preference for state control over market forces in running the economy led to him losing influence as premier to his lieutenant Zhu Rongji, handpicked by Deng Xiaping to revive stalled economic reforms and market liberalization.

After Li, who was trained as an engineer in the Soviet Union, had a heart attack in 1993, Zhu gradually assumed more responsibility for the country’s economic policies and eventually took over from Li as premier in 1998. However, Li retained his number two rank within the party hierarchy, moving to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and presiding over the legislature until he retired in 2003

 – with reporting by Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC

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