Chen Xitong, Beijing Mayor During Tiananmen Protests, Dies at 82

Chen Xitong, the mayor of Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who served jail time for corruption and later condemned the student crackdown he was portrayed as engineering, has died. He was 82.

Chen died of cancer on June 2, 2013, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a statement yesterday evening. He died two days before the 24th anniversary of the army’s attack on the protesters.

Chen’s jailing in 1998 on graft charges marked one of the highest-level prosecutions of a Communist Party official since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. His reassessment of Tiananmen -- offered in a book published last year -- was a rare instance of a top party stalwart breaking with the line that the crackdown was necessary to maintain stability.

The massacre, in which hundreds of people were killed, was “a tragedy that could have been avoided but wasn’t avoided,” Chen said in the book “Conversations with Chen Xitong.” “One day the truth will be revealed.”

Born in southwest Sichuan province on June 10, 1930, Chen studied at Peking University and joined the Communist Party in 1949 as it came to power in the mainland. He served as vice party secretary of Beijing’s Changping county and rose to mayor of the city in 1983, said in a 2002 biography.

As Beijing mayor, Chen was a hardliner who “actively encouraged” sending in armed forces against students who had gathered at Tiananmen, Joseph Fewsmith, director of the Center for the Study of Asia at Boston University, wrote in his 2001 book “China Since Tiananmen: the Politics of Transition.”

Military Action

In an official report on the crackdown, Chen defended the military action that culminated in the clearing of the square and blamed former Premier Zhao Ziyang for splitting the party and supporting the protests.

Chen ascended to the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992. Three years later he was purged, and then sentenced to 16 years behind bars on corruption charges in 1998. He was released for health reasons in 2004.

Chen “led a dissolute, extravagant life, abused his power to seek illegal interests for his relatives and accepted valuable gifts for his own use,” Xinhua said in a 1995 account. His son was also sentenced to 12 years jail.

In his memoir, “Prisoner of the State,” Zhao said Chen and other party hardliners disregarded that the protests had started to calm down and portrayed them as a movement in opposition to the party and then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

“If Zhao’s account is correct, and most accounts that I know of concur, then Chen Xitong played a critical role in depicting the situation in ways that made it seem more out of control than it was -- prompting Deng’s harsh response,” Fewsmith said in an e-mail.

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson

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