On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was preparing to leave home to teach a class when he commented to his wife that he did not feel quite right. She urged him to stay home and he agreed, saying he would call his department secretary to explain. A few minutes later he had died in his chair at his home office.

News of his passing spread quickly on the Chinese Internet. Students whom he had taught in the 1980s and admirers of his eloquent championing of human rights wrote their accolades. State Security officials noticed, and within hours ordered Internet police to delete all messages that mentioned the words “Fang Lizhi.” After that, tweets about Fang on weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) disappeared about a minute after posting.

Fang’s father was a postal clerk and he grew up in modest circumstances. But soon it became clear that Fang had a brilliant mind, and his outstanding work as a student led him to the Physics Department of China’s elite Peking University in the early 1950s. The campus atmosphere of optimistic socialism attracted him, and he joined the Communist Party. In courting his girlfriend (a fellow student who later became his wife, the physicist Li Shuxian), he once invited her to “watch me grow into a good Communist.” During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, he was persecuted and confined in a reeducation camp at a coal mine in southern Anhui province. It was this treatment that led him to specialize in theoretical astrophysics, which he later told me was “the only field of physics I could pursue without equipment.” After Mao died Fang’s star rose again, and in 1984 he became vice-president of China’s prestigious University of Science and Technology in Anhui.

By then he had shed his attachment to Marxist dogma and, in addition to teaching physics, began delivering trenchant speeches on human rights and democracy. For example, when the government of Deng Xiaoping began using the slogan “modernization with Chinese characteristics” (i.e., modernization without power-sharing by the Communist Party), Fang responded satirically by asking students if they believed in physics with Chinese characteristics. Students were charmed; the authorities were not. In January 1987 they fired him from his university job (for this and other speeches), expelled him from the Party, and compiled excerpts from his speeches that they then distributed to campuses all across China as examples of “bourgeois liberalism” that students should avoid. But students found the excerpts themselves far more attractive than the warnings, and Fang suddenly became famous everywhere in China. He became the spirit behind the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in the spring of 1989. He lived on the outskirts of Beijing at the time, but refused to go to Tiananmen Square …

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