My ‘Confession’

Fang Lizhi, translated from the Chinese by Perry Link
Forrest Anderson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi at home in Beijing, shortly before taking refuge at the US embassy during and after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, 1989

From reading Henry Kissinger’s new book On China,1 I have learned that Mr. Kissinger met with Deng Xiaoping at least eleven times—more than with any other Chinese leader—and that the topic of one of their chats was whether Fang Lizhi would confess and repent.

On June 3, 1989, Deng, chair of the Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, ordered tanks from Chinese field armies into Beijing to suppress students who were demonstrating peacefully at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 5, Raymond Burghardt, political counselor in the US embassy in Beijing, came to the hotel where my wife, Li Shuxian, and I were temporarily staying and invited us to “take refuge” in the embassy as “guests of President Bush.” He said we could stay as long as we needed. The matter soon became a point of contention in US–China relations.

About five months later, on November 9, Deng received, as he described him, his “old friend” Henry Kissinger and brought up “the Fang Lizhi case.” Deng told Kissinger that he was prepared to release the Fang family, expelling them from China “if the American side required Fang to write a confession.” Kissinger replied that if Fang were later to say that the American government had forced him to confess, things would be worse than if he had not confessed.

The American ambassador, James Lilley, relayed the gist of this Deng–Kissinger exchange to Li Shuxian and me, inside the embassy. Lilley, referring to the confession as “one of” Deng’s conditions, made it clear that he was only transmitting the message, not asking for a confession. We were “the guests of Bush”; what kind of host asks a guest to confess? I felt a bit sorry for the ambassador, who clearly was caught in a dilemma: he could not ask for a confession, and could not meet Deng’s condition, either. I told him to relax—Deng’s condition would not be all that hard to satisfy. I knew things about Chinese Communist “confession culture” that Lilley and Kissinger probably did not understand.

Anyone who has lived through political campaigns in recent Chinese history knows this much about the confession culture: solving a “problem” has little if anything to do with actual repentance or admission of guilt. So long as the underlying problem remains, no number of “confessions” changes anything. And once the underlying problem is solved, the lack of a confession never stands in the way. During the high tide of the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese scientists, including me, had to hand in confessions every day, and each confession was supposed to show “new” and “deeper” introspection on what we had found wrong in ourselves. One method we…

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