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Letters from the Other China

Fang Lizhi, translated by Orville Schell


Orville Schell

During the student demonstrations that swept China toward the end of 1986, the brilliant astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who was then vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, emerged, through his speeches to student groups, as the country’s most forceful advocate of democracy and human rights. The letters that are published below along with Fang’s introduction were written to him during this period. After his speeches circulated throughout China and were harshly criticized by Deng Xiaoping, Fang was dismissed from his job and expelled from the Chinese Communist party in January of 1987. But even after his fall from official grace, he carried on research and he continued to speak out, not only giving voice to the disaffection of other intellectuals and students, but articulating a program for democratizing China’s political system. In doing so, he was at the forefront of efforts by intellectuals to expand the boundaries of what Chinese dared to think and say. In the process, however, he more and more deeply antagonized China’s aging leaders, who, although they presented themselves as ruling in the name of the “people,” had never really taken seriously the notion of the right of citizens to express independent views, much less to make unsolicited demands on the government, or accuse it of corruption.

After the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government again denounced Fang, this time for having “made the students rise up,” and as the “instigator of chaos which resulted in the deaths of many people.” Accusing Fang and his wife, the physicist Li Shuxian, of having engaged in “counterrevolutionary propaganda,” the regime issued a warrant for their arrest. Fang had by then been granted “temporary refuge” at the American embassy, where he became the center of a growing diplomatic storm, in which the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the US government for “wanton interference‌in the internal affairs of China.”

By concentrating so obsessively on Fang, as if he were the chief source from which all democratic contagion in China was emanating, the government of Deng Xiaoping avoids having to reckon with, or even to understand, the new political forces that have been erupting within Chinese society. In fact, it is not unlikely that the regime’s police are now putting pressure on the recently arrested student activists to confess that they were following Fang’s directions in demonstrating against the Party.

Although Fang’s voice has served as an inspiration, and although he has become a symbol of clear thinking and courage for many people, he knows very well that he could not have “singlehandedly caused” China’s democracy movement, and he would be the first to point out that disaffection with Chinese communism and anger with growing official corruption, inefficiency, and authoritarianism are sentiments he did not invent. These grievances with the current system have been gathering momentum throughout Chinese society for the past decade. We get a suggestion of their depth from the letters published here, written to Fang two and a half years ago, long before the recent uprisings.

The letters are only two of hundreds that suddenly poured into Fang’s mailbox just after the Party began vilifying him in the press as an exponent of “wholesale westernization” and “bourgeois liberalization” in January 1987. They reveal the degree to which even ordinary people had become cynical and distrustful of their government and its mouthpiece, the official press. The flood of admiring mail also revealed that there was a new, bold group of ordinary people in China who had not only learned to read between the lines of the government press, but who had by 1987 acquired the independence of mind and the courage to speak out.

Fang made a selection of more than a dozen letters for publication, and it is from this selection that the two letters included here are drawn. He wrote the introduction that appears below in December 1988, a time of considerable intellectual freedom, although he did not believe the letters could soon be published in China. As he recalls in his introduction, he was not only surprised but touched to see that people often dared to sign their names openly, even on post cards. What they seemed to be saying to the Party was: anything you are against, we are for, and anything you are for, we are against, suggesting the degree to which the Party had become a negative rather than a positive example.

After a curious hiatus of a few weeks, during February 1987, when Fang received a progressively smaller number of letters each day, suddenly a new batch began arriving. What he noted about this second generation of letters was their higher level of political sophistication. Instead of being simple expressions of sympathy and support for his situation as someone who had been wronged and purged, many included discussions not only of the writers’ views on the failure of communism but of Fang’s own ideas on democracy and human rights, and of China’s need for sweeping political changes, including the protection of the right of citizens to engage in open political dissent.

The immediate cause of the sudden elevation of political consciousness among the masses was both comical and ironic, and went a long way to explain how out of touch China’s aging leaders were with the realities of modern Chinese society. The Chinese Communist party, using its old-fashioned methods of “disseminating documents” for “ideological work,” had printed and distributed to all of the Party branches a collection of Fang’s speeches so that members could hold “criticism sessions” of this anti-Party villain. But instead of revealing Fang’s odiousness to the masses as was intended, the official compendium of Fang’s thoughts, containing as it did astute analysis and often funny insights into the bankruptcy of Chinese communism, only made Party members more respectful of the man they were supposed to criticize. Unwittingly the Party had become Fang’s public relations agent and the vehicle by which the very anti-Party ideas that they hoped to eradicate were spread.

The letters Fang received not only open a small window on what many ordinary people were thinking in China at the time, but they presciently reveal, as early as two and a half years ago, how deep were the grievances that explosively came to a head this spring in Tiananmen Square.


After the 1986 Chinese student movement subsided, a fair number of foreign friends and journalists asked me: “Why is there only one Fang Lizhi in China?” and, “Being one lone person, don’t you feel isolated?”

I hope that the following letters will serve as a kind of reply to these questions by providing proof that China has many other people whose thoughts are similar to my own, and that I am thus not really alone. Moreover, the dozens of letters I have selected for publication are not even 1 percent of the number of letters I actually received.

In the Chinese scheme of things, letters are not seen as an inviolable means by which people can communicate. Although Chinese law stipulates that freedom of correspondence is protected, during the last few decades there has been an enormous number of cases in which people have been persecuted because of what they wrote in personal letters. The best known case was that of the so-called counterrevolutionary clique of Hu Feng [one of the first well-known dissident intellectuals to be purged after “liberation”]. In 1955, Mao Zedong personally made public certain “counterrevolutionary materials” by Hu Feng, almost all of which were lifted from private letters. In actuality, the so-called counterrevolutionary parts were really nothing more than a few phrases of complaint about the situation at that time.

At the end of 1986, just as the student demonstrations were reaching a crescendo, the mail that normally came in and out of the Chinese University of Science and Technology, where I was vice-president, not only suddenly began to come in more slowly, so that letters which had normally taken no more than two days to arrive began to take a week, but also the number of “lost” letters began to increase sharply. The reason was of course self-evident.

Ironically, one cannot make a blanket statement that China has had no openness or “glasnost.” In fact, so far as the people in authority in the dictatorship of the proletariat are concerned, the letters of select people have long been subject to an official form of “glasnost” treatment. Because of this, just to write a personal letter in China has often required tremendous courage, a courage that is not necessarily any less than what it takes to give a public speech.

Some really courageous people have simply taken to using this type of “openness” for their own good purposes. For instance, a portion of the correspondence that I received in 1987 was written openly, right on the back of post cards. The intention of the writers who usually signed their names was clear. Since they knew that this kind of mail was going to be examined anyway, they reasoned, why not just send it openly for all to see in the first place? This way not only could the censoring authorities easily read the correspondence, but everyone else could see what had been written. These post cards were a means of more broadly disseminating ideas. Indeed, by the fall of 1987, when authorities were most strenuously suppressing democracy and freedom, people eagerly came each day to wait at the mailroom of the Beijing Astronomical Observatory, where I had subsequently been assigned to work, just so that they could read the freshly arrived crop of post cards. Some of these cards protested the actions of the authorities, some supported the views of students, some derided the so-called antibourgeois liberalization movement.1 In a country that has neither freedom of speech nor freedom of the press, one values any kind of freedom all the more, even if it can only be excercised on the back of a tiny post card.

Precisely because of this, I believe that publishing these letters will not violate their authors’ original intentions. Needless to say, I could not get everyone’s approval for publication, simply because I had no way of doing so. But I feel that one way I can express my deep gratitude to all those who have encouraged and supported me is by openly circulating their letters. What I regret is that these Chinese letters cannot first be published in China itself. What is worse is that even long after they may appear abroad, their authors will probably still not know it, much less be able actually to see them in print. However, come what may, their voices will finally have been recorded as part of the historical record. And here, at least, they will serve as evidence that even when Deng Xiaoping admonished the police “not to be afraid of letting a little blood flow,”2 China still gave rise to voices which, in crying out for freedom and democracy, refused to be suppressed.

—Beijing, December 20, 1988

* * *

January 20, 1987

Dear and Most Respected Teacher, Fang:

Greetings and how are you? We are a group of high school students who live in Qiqihar, way up on the northern frontier where our motherland borders on the Soviet Union. Last night, after we finished listening to a radio program criticizing you, we found ourselves feeling angry, but also happy at the same time. What made us feel angry was the utter irrationality of those who are politically dominating us and the way in which they confuse black and white. For the life of us, we were unable to find anything wrong in what you had said in your “speeches.” In fact, quite to the contrary, the more we heard of them, the more we felt the truthfulness of those thoughts advanced by you. What made us feel happy was the notion that our country still has a person such as you. You are our hope.

You have said that if one wants democracy one must struggle for it. And now, among students, this has already become a familiar quotation which has circulated widely. You have said that the yearning for democracy and the rejection of autocratic control is a developing and unstoppable trend in the world. But now our newspapers, radios, and television stations talk nonstop about the “state of the nation” and how we should strive not to fall prey to “wholesale Westernization.” But we feel that such talk is just a pretext used by those who dominate us to protect their domination.

Only by actually changing the circumstances of the “state of the nation” will our country ever have hope. And, without being too extreme, one could say that what most characterizes our “state of the nation” is the growing polarization between the rich and the poor. What is more, it is government officials, gangs of hooligans, and pickpockets in the streets that are the first segments of society to get rich first. Even our parents say that the police these days are more fearful than the police of the Kuomintang era.

Of course, our opinions may not quite be correct, and it is possible that you might even find them laughable. But all that we really want to tell you is this: the more they criticize you, the higher your reputation will rise, just as when Chairman Mao began to criticize Deng Xiaoping, and ended up criticizing him right into office. And when Deng Xiaoping first became the leader we believed that our situation would improve. Never in the farthest reaches of our imagination did we expect that it would become as bad as it is now.

Please forgive us for not signing our names.

A Group of High School Students

PS We are on your side (even though it may be useless)!

PPS [As one individual in the group], allow me to add a few additional words. My father works in the Qiqihar municipal government, and I have never seen him do even one good deed to really help the people. All that I have seen him and his cronies do is intrigue against each other, using any tactic in their rivalry to become mayor. As a result, right now in Qiqihar eight out of ten people view the mayor as nothing more than a skunk.

But, alas, the mayor is still our mayor. So from this we can see the importance of democracy.

Dear Teacher Fang:

Although Beijing and Hefei3 are a thousand lip apart, it is not hard for us to imagine your plight. Please accept this as an expression of high tribute to you.

All of us writing have lived through the great calamity of the so-called Cultural Revolution and are now Chinese Communist party members, and most of us are now in some kind of leadership positions either in the central government or in other state organizations. As for the students who have been demonstrating in the streets, we don’t believe that this is necessarily a particularly good way to strive toward democracy. But as for those who view these demonstrations as an enormous outrage, and those who have opened up a battlefield of vengeful criticism, we abhor them even more.

Recently the tactics of our propaganda organs seem hardly different from those used during the Anti-Rightist campaign in 1956 and the movement to criticize President Lug Shaoqi in 1966. Still we have the tyranny of a single voice, and still we are confronted with the same kind of criticism which will not tolerate people defending themselves. Reality has shown us once again that in China what we actually confront is not the threat of a capitalist restoration, but havoc wrought by a still volatile core of feudalism wrapped up in Marxism. China’s process of democratization is going to be a long and painful one.

It may make you feel somewhat relieved to know that a great majority of people our age, and even a fairly large number of older comrades in central state organizations as well, have all expressed disgust at the way things are now being handled. But, of course, at official meetings everyone must put on a mask, and, contrary to their real convictions, mouth official jargon. But privately they not only express real outrage about phony Marxists, but evince great admiration and respect for you.

There are some older intellectuals who, having been themselves duped by others for decades, now in turn help dupe younger people. Standing before such members of their own generation as Lu Xun, Wen Yiduo, and Lip Gongpu,4 one wonders of they do not now feel ashamed. But perhaps not. Once these sorts of people become officials, even though their positions are actually worth no more than a rubber stamp, they no longer heed such things as shame.

In thirty or forty years, when we look back on the farce that is now being enacted, we will doubtless feel its complete ludicrousness, not to say its utter tragedy. Does China have hope? We think so, but such hope lies with the country’s youth.

When we compare ourselves to you, we feel unworthy because we have not had the courage to stand up without taking regard for our own safety and forcefully to make appeals for democracy and freedom. But please believe us when we say that we will never ride roughshod over democracy just to preserve our official positions. We will wait until we have the ability to speak out, until the advance of time is able to push us forward into more important positions, and then we will make our great effort to strive for democracy, a legal system, and freedom.

Please forgive us for not revealing our positions. Because we know all too well what kind of “democracy” and “freedom” is around us. We have even had to have this letter copied in the hand of younger siblings.

Once again, accept our highest tribute.

Several Older Youths from the Capital
—translated by Orville Schell

  1. 1

    Launched by the hard-line neo-Maoist faction of the Party in January 1987 after the student demonstrations of December 1986.

  2. 2

    This is the phrase Deng is said to have uttered when urging police to halt student demonstrations in December 1986.

  3. 3

    The capital of Anhui Province where Fang was vice-president of the University of Science and Technology before his dismissal in January 1987.

  4. 4

    Three renowned intellectuals from the Thirties. Lu Xun was China’s most revered short-story writer and essayist; Wen Yiduo was a poet who, along with the writer Lip Gongpu, was murdered by the nationalists in 1946.

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