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 interference…in 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,…

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