Fang Lizhi, physicist and dissident, died on April 6th, aged 76
Apr 14th 2012 | from the print edition
IN MID-DECEMBER 1986 the atmosphere crackled with excitement on university campuses in the central Chinese city of Hefei. Students gathered at campus notice- boards to read hand-written posters calling for freedom and democracy. Some of them invoked the rallying cries of America’s political heroes: “Give me liberty or give me death,” read one.
Fang Lizhi was the man who had encouraged the students to speak out: the first and, so far, only intellectual in Communist-ruled China whose dissent has spurred the young to challenge party rule. He liked to describe himself as “just a physicist”: a professional star-gazer and long-standing party member who had been vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei since 1984. But he was far from ordinary. He had assumed, then demanded, freedom from his earliest days in science.
Scientific inquiry, as he repeatedly, fearlessly wrote and said, needed spirit, ideas, passion and individual integrity. What it did not need was the “guiding role” of Marxist ideology. To attach philosophical pedigrees to scientific theories, usually in order to discredit them, was the method of the Inquisition and the tormentors of Galileo, whose stories he knew well. But that was how science worked in China. If the powers-that-be disliked a theory, they would slap it down with something from Mao’s Book of Quotations. This, said Mr Fang, amounted to blind worship of “some omnipotent Supreme”, and “all of us”—all who, like him, had suffered through China’s cycles of purging and rehabilitation, expelled from teaching post and party and then embraced again—“have direct experience of the Supreme.”
His own research had been trashed by it. He had turned to cosmology and general-relativity studies when, during the Cultural Revolution, he found himself digging coal in Huainan with only one book, Landau and Lifshitz’s “Classical Field Theory”, for company. But in 1972 his paper, “A solution of the cosmological equations in scalar-tensor theory, with mass and blackbody radiation”, was condemned as “capitalist metaphysics”. Big Bang theory of that sort was not communist doctrine; had not Engels declared that the universe had always existed, and was infinite in space and time? Mr Fang spent the rest of his life retorting: “Not necessarily.”
He did so in goading, playful style. An article of 1979, composed in England, was entitled “Written at midnight after praising the Lord.” Another was called “A hat, a forbidden zone, and a question.” He wrote for public consumption in newspapers, as well as for academic journals. And, with unheard-of daring, he sniped at political structures as well as pseudo-science. It was better to question socialism than love it, he said. Marxism-Leninism was “a worn-out dress that should be thrown away.” And “if every one of those good words—liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy, human rights—has been called ‘bourgeois’, what on earth does that leave for us?”
A red shift not observed
In 1986 his chirpy irreverence for party authority stoked student unrest not only in Hefei, but also in Shanghai and Beijing. Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, denounced him, and party cells across the country were ordered to study and criticise Mr Fang’s views, usefully gaining him a readership of millions.
He was not, however, put in prison. In Deng’s cautiously modernising China, he was too good to waste: the poor son of a post-office clerk who went to university at 16, was a full professor at 42, and was easily conversant with the latest scientific researches of the West. He was dismissed from his job in Hefei, but brought back to the Beijing Observatory—while his wife Li Shuxian, also a physicist, was given a job at Peking University, a traditional hotbed of student activism. Foreign journalists were allowed to visit them in their small apartment, full of Mr Fang’s wild, free, whinnying laughter. He had had worse run-ins before, as a “slipped-though-the-net-rightist” in the Mao years. And he felt that reformists in the leadership were still on his side.
In 1989 he spurred forward their campaign for change. That January he wrote to Deng demanding the release of political prisoners, inspired dozens of other intellectuals to sign up in support, and kicked off a spring of unprecedented upheaval. When protests broke out in Beijing in April he stayed in the background, but hardliners saw him as a “black hand” behind Tiananmen. At one rally after the unrest had been crushed, his effigy was burned.
The party, however, was unable to capture him. Mr Fang and Ms Li took refuge in the American embassy, bringing the fate of dissidents to the forefront of George Bush’s dealings with China, until they were allowed, in 1990, to go into exile. Eventually Mr Fang settled at the University of Arizona to become a professor of physics, as he wanted, specialising in statistical studies of the extragalactic red shift.
No red shift was observed in China. He kept speaking out, but his stumbling English could not match his Chinese, and distance blurred him. “A rising economic power that violates human rights is a threat to peace,” he wrote from his new home. China’s students, once his eager followers, appeared unmoved. The cosmos wheeled on its mysterious way.
Further reading: “Fang Lizhi’s Expanding Universe” by James H. Williams, in China Quarterly
APR 8 2012, 4:32 PM ET
Back in 1988, when the Tiananmen Square crackdown and Fang Lizhi’s celebrated exile to the United States were still a year or more in the future, Orville Schell did a long article about Fang and the prospects for Chinese reform in the Atlantic. It is still very much worth reading, on the occasion of Fang’s death this week. (As a reminder: Fang was a celebrated astrophysicist in China whose views on democratic reform helped inspire the student protests of 1989. Also as a reminder: this was at a time of widespread reform movements against Communist regimes, notably the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, both shortly after Tiananmen. Fang was granted asylum in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and after nearly a year there was allowed by Chinese authorities to leave the country and come to the United States, where he lived and taught most of the time since.)
Also worth reading: Fang Lizhi’s recent works on his native country and its hopes for political evolution, mainly in the New York Review of Books. These include a harsh review of Ezra Vogel’s recent biography of Deng Xiaoping; a look back on the “confession” that was part of Fang’s eventual exit from China; and the original text of the statement he issued after the Tiananmen shootings, these latter two translated by Perry Link.
The last words of Schell’s article are resonant, 24 years later. He wrote them during a moment when it appeared that China might be part of the worldwide shift away from Communist authoritarian control:
Liberal friends who only the winter before had been gloomy about the prospect for political reform in China were now filled with a new optimism.
But, chastened by the many earlier abortive reform efforts, Fang remained skeptical about the future. When asked by the Hong Kong journal Baixing Banyue Kan how he viewed the outcome of the Congress and Zhao’s clearly reform-minded speech to the Party, he replied, “It is true that Zhao’s report was very stirring. But in his own time Mao Zedong made speeches that were even more stirring.” After citing a host of ways in which the Party continued to conduct itself in an undemocratic fashion, Fang went on to warn, “It’s not enough just to read of speeches in newspapers. One must always keep one’s eye on reality…There are still just too many examples of authorities saying one thing but doing another.”