BEIJING (AP) — Chen Xitong, who as Beijing's mayor backed the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democratic movement but later expressed regret for the loss of life, died days before its 24th anniversary, according to media reports and a family friend.
At the height of his career, Chen was one of China's most powerful men, but a corruption scandal brought about his spectacular downfall.
The Hong Kong China News Agency, an offshoot of the official China News Service, said Chen died Sunday in Beijing. Chengdu-based writer He Sanwei also said he had been informed of Chen's death by the former mayor's relatives, with whom he has been friends for years. He said Chen died of cancer. He was 82.
Initial reports of Chen's death began to circulate on Tuesday's anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, but there was no confirmation by mainland state media. Chen's death so close to the politically sensitive date posed additional difficulties for the government, which makes intense efforts to erase mention of the 1989 events.
Chen was long portrayed as having supported the military assault that crushed the weekslong student-led protests, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. But he apparently had a change of heart late in his life, and was quoted in a book published last year as saying that the crackdown was avoidable and he regretted the loss of life.
A native of Sichuan province, Chen studied Chinese at prestigious Peking University and joined the Communist Party in 1949, months after the People's Republic of China was founded.
He rose through the ranks in Beijing and in 1983 was appointed mayor, a position he held until 1993, shortly after he was promoted to Beijing Communist Party boss and given a seat on the party's elite Politburo, the apex of Chinese political power. Then a massive graft scandal that may have cost the city more than $2 billion resulted in his downfall in 1995.
Chen was deposed and given a 16-year prison term, effectively silencing him. In sentencing him in 1998, a Beijing court ruled that Chen pursued a "corrupt and decadent life" that featured lavish partying at two villas built with public funds.
By 2006, Chen had reportedly been released on medical parole for cancer treatment. He looked set to fade into the annals of Chinese political history but for the publication of the book in Hong Kong last year based on comments he made in interviews with a retired scholar, Yao Jianfu.
Yao said Chen denied being directly responsible for the Tiananmen crackdown and thought it should never have happened. He urged a reinvestigation of the crackdown to determine how many people were killed and other facts.