Astrophysicist and activist Fang Lizhi (方励之), one of the figureheads of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, passed away Friday in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 76, after 22 years of life in exile.
Known for writing articles critical of the government as early as the 1950s, Fang was imprisoned for a year during the Cultural Revolution and sent to work with farmers in Anhui province. In 1987, he was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and sacked from his post as the vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China.
Two years later, during the 1989 student demonstrations, Fang sought refuge at the US Embassy with his family before he was eventually allowed to leave China following protracted negotiations and a political standoff between the United States and China.
From the obituary written by John Gittings of The Guardian:
Two years before the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese Communist party circulated extracts from speeches by the dissident professor Fang Lizhi, who has died aged 76, to its membership for serious “study and criticism”. Fang, one of a number of Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s who sought to open up the post-Mao Zedong political system to reform, had attracted a significant following among university students – many of whom would occupy Tiananmen Square in Beijing in May-June 1989 when the crisis of confidence in the party came to a head.
“It is better to study socialism than to love socialism,” Fang argued. This was one of the quotations gathered by the party’s political officers as “negative material” with which to discredit the new democracy movement. To their horror, many rank-and-file members laughed appreciatively at Fang’s ridicule of party propaganda.
Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s had been encouraged to speak out, somewhat equivocally by the pre-eminent post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping and more forthrightly by Deng’s deputy, General Secretary Hu Yaobang. But Fang, an astrophysicist and vice-president of the main science university in Anhui province, along with a few others, overstepped the boundary which in modern China, as in imperial times, the scholar is required to observe.
He was briefly praised by the party newspaper the People’s Daily for promoting internal staff elections at his university and opening up its budget to scrutiny. But he offended by challenging the party’s cautious edging forward towards reform. Democracy, said Fang, was “a right and not a gift from above”. Even worse, he named names, mocking an influential deputy mayor of Beijing for having gone on a freebie to a conference in the US. The crisis of ideals in the Chinese leadership, Fang concluded, began at the top.
- The obituary written by Michael Wines of the New York Times.
- Orville Schell, in an article written in May 1988, called Fang “China’s Andrei Sakharov”, saying his speeches had galvanised the student movement and helped fuel a change in the political climate.
- Statement by Fang Lizhi on China’s past and future written while he was hiding at the US Embassy in 1989
- Article written last year by Fang on the “confession” he wrote before he was allowed to leave for the United States