By 1989, divisions were tearing at the Communist leadership. Despite a decade of economic growth, students and intellectuals were dismayed by corruption and the party’s reluctance to emulate the changes sweeping the Soviet bloc. The broader public was also irate about official privilege and price reforms that had unleashed inflation.
Those tensions flared after the death of Hu Yaobang, when the mourning in Tiananmen Square escalated into demands to curtail the power and privilege of the party’s elite through steps to democracy and free speech.
Zhao and other relatively moderate members of the party hierarchy advocated measured political liberalization and press freedoms to defuse discontent. However, hard-liners argued that liberalization was a menace, not a cure.
They had the backing of Deng, who was more enthusiastic about economic reforms than about political compromise.
Wang Juntao, the democracy advocate, recalled meeting Li Keqiang, his former university acquaintance, for a last time in mid-May 1989, when Li was among a group of officials trying to coax students to end a hunger strike and return to class.
“As a student, he used to speak his mind,” Wang said. “Now some of that pushiness was gone. He’d become an official who deferred to his superiors, but I still think he had a sense of justice.”
By the time the government declared martial law in Beijing on May 20, 1989, Zhao’s authority was broken, and Deng and party conservatives prepared a harsher response to students clogging Tiananmen Square.
Two weeks later, soldiers and tanks plowed toward the square, and China went through a convulsion of purges and imprisonments.
To navigate these reversals, former acquaintances said Li Keqiang and other Communist Youth League officials showed a ruthless pragmatism to ward off suspicions of disloyalty, taking steps that included attending meetings at which they denounced the protests as counterrevolutionary.
“To survive in the party, you have to become an opportunist,” Wang said.
Soon after the crackdown, Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛), a singer in a military troupe, was among the performers who entertained troops in Tiananmen Square.
Photographs of her performance, published in a People’s Liberation Army magazine in 1989, spread briefly on the Chinese Internet this year before disappearing — a reminder of the sensitivities of that time.
“The party system changes people,” said Wu, the former official. “Once you go down that path, you learn that to defend yourself, you have to defend the system, but I don’t believe that era left no traces on them.”