The Heritage of a Great Man

Fang Lizhi in his office at the University of Arizona, Tucson, August 1996
John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corp./Getty Images
Fang Lizhi in his office at the University of Arizona, Tucson, August 1996

Why did communism grow deep roots and survive in China, while it withered and died in Russia? This is one of the central questions of modern history. A plausible answer to the question is that communism in China resonated with the two-thousand-year-old Confucian tradition of the wise ruler governing a harmonious society of peaceful citizens, while communism in Russia was undermined by the Russian tradition of ruthless tsars like Ivan the Terrible ruling a lawless society of oligarchs and serfs.

This answer may be valid, but the recently published autobiography of Fang Lizhi suggests a different answer to the question. Fang’s book is the personal story of a scientist whose life was shaped by Chinese history. From the evidence provided by this book, I am led to believe that communism survived in China because the brutal reeducation of the elite, by exile to coal mines and villages and forced sharing of hardships with dirt-poor workers and peasants, was to some extent a genuine reeducation. A great many members of the elite endured a period of gross abuse and humiliation, so severe as to drive many of them to suicide. Fang—who died in 2012—describes four of these personal tragedies that he remembered vividly when he wrote his book thirty years later. But the majority of the victims, like Fang, survived the physical and mental battering, and returned to pursue careers as leaders of society. They became a privileged and corrupt class, but had acquired some indelible firsthand knowledge of the real needs and desires of the Chinese people.

In Russia there was much talk of reeducation of the elite, but the reality was different. In Russia the purges killed large numbers of the elite and condemned others to long years of imprisonment in the gulag archipelago, but those who survived were not re-educated. The intellectuals who survived in Russia remained isolated from the realities of working-class existence. The working class in the minds of the rulers of Russia remained an intellectual abstraction, detached from contact with reality.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Fang became a dissident. His reeducation was too successful, pushing him all the way to a final rejection of communism. But he was the exception who proves the rule. The rule is demonstrated by the majority of Chinese intellectuals who climbed back into the system after reeducation, not by the small minority who became dissidents. The historical fact is that reeducation generally succeeded in its avowed purpose. It produced a governing class that combined a formal acceptance of the regime’s Communist dogma with some understanding of the people it was governing.

Two high points of Fang’s autobiography are the stories of his reeducation. Chapter 7, entitled…



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