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 “Life in the Fields,” describes his first experience of reeducation, some eight months spent in a farming village at the time of the Great Leap Forward. This was the year 1957–1958, when Fang was a twenty-one-year-old student of nuclear physics. In the village, he lived in the same primitive conditions as the farmers and proudly did his share of the harsh physical work without any help from modern technology. He collected straw from the fields, since this was the only fuel available to keep the room in which he slept tolerably warm. He dug a well thirty-five feet deep through rocks and mud to improve the supply of water to the village. He sometimes failed to catch pigs that ran away to escape slaughter, even though he could run a hundred-meter dash in twelve and a half seconds. He gained the respect of the farmers by being as tough and as competent as they were.
When Mao Zedong announced the crazy demands of the Great Leap Forward, Fang worked furiously with the farmers at deep plowing, digging up a whole field to the depth of a meter, a backbreaking labor that was supposed to achieve potato yields of four thousand tons per acre. Before the Great Leap Forward ended with widespread starvation and economic collapse, Fang was lucky to be released from the village. He returned to academic life as a teaching assistant in physics at the University of Science and Technology of China.
Chapter 10, called “Reeducation at Bagong Mountain,” describes his second reeducation, a year spent in a coal-mining village during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. Fang was then thirty-four, still a loyal Communist but beginning to have doubts. He quickly became as tough and as competent a coal miner as he had been a farmer. Naked in the hot and humid blackness of the coal face, the miners dug out the coal with practiced efficiency. Fang quickly learned their skills and earned their friendship. After the end of a shift, they washed their bodies in coal-blackened water and put on their clothes.
Like the farmers, they had no interest in their official status as bulwarks of the people’s democratic dictatorship. They knew very well that they were not in charge of the dictatorship. They were interested in surviving the follies of a dictatorial regime run by people with little understanding of coal mining. Fang learned from the miners the essential fact that the people’s democratic dictatorship was a fake. In the Communist paradise, the miners remained as they had been before the revolution, an exploited proletariat delivering wealth and power to the government and receiving little in return. After his second reeducation, Fang returned to his science and his teaching, but never forgot the lessons he had learned as a coal miner.
Another high point of his story, the last chapter, called “Thirteen Months,” begins with the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989, when a large gathering of peacefully protesting students was savagely attacked by army troops with heavy weapons. Fang was quietly supporting the students but was not at the scene of the massacre. By that time, he had written and talked of the need for more freedom in China, and the government had declared him to be a public enemy and accused him of instigating a student rebellion. He feared that his presence at Tiananmen would give the government an excuse for harsh treatment of the students. As it happened, no excuse was needed. The students were attacked with maximum violence, while Fang stayed silent at his home and remained there for one more day. He knew that he had done nothing illegal, and did not feel any immediate danger. Then numerous warnings from friends persuaded him to spend two days in hiding, while the government called for his immediate arrest. For a brief period he became the most wanted man in China—giving this book its title.
The title is misleading, as Fang lived in China for fifty-three years, most of the time as a highly respected citizen, in later years as a tolerated critic of the regime, and only for two days as a hunted traitor. He had been expelled twice from membership in the Communist Party for his outspoken advocacy of human rights, and he had been punished as a result, but his life was not threatened until the last two days.
The two days ended when a group of American friends, including the translator Perry Link, conveyed to him the invitation of President George H.W. Bush to take refuge in the American embassy in Beijing. Fang and his wife accepted the invitation and moved into the embassy, since this was the only way to avoid endangering the Chinese friends who had been sheltering them. They stayed in the embassy for thirteen months, closely confined but well protected.
Fang used the months of enforced leisure to write the Chinese version of this book. He tried to publish it during his lifetime, but his Hong Kong publishers canceled the deal for political reasons. It was published in Taiwan in 2013, one year after his death. He never revised it, and it remains an unfinished autobiography, stopping at age fifty-three and saying nothing about the twenty-two active and fruitful years that he lived as an exile.
For this translation, Perry Link has added a foreword and an afterword. The foreword is a review of the book, appraising Fang’s place in history twenty years after the book was written. The afterword is a brief summary of Fang’s life as an exile in the United States. It ends with a personal description of Fang, using words spoken by Link at Fang’s memorial service in Tucson in 2012. Link had been for many years a close friend of Fang, first in China and later in America. His foreword and afterword add perspective and depth to the self-portrait that Fang’s book has given us.
For the last ten years of his life in China, Fang was often free to travel. When he received invitations from abroad, the authorities sometimes said no and sometimes yes. He took advantage of his freedom to visit many countries. He was a welcome guest at various scientific institutions, where he liked to settle down for several months, long enough to make friends with the local experts and do some serious scientific research. One of the places that he visited during this time was the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he spent the academic year 1985–1986. I got to know him as a scientific colleague at the institute, and learned much from our conversations about the cosmological problems that he was studying.
During these conversations, he never mentioned the political struggles in China in which he was deeply engaged. I thought of him as a scientist, not as a famous political dissident. That was the way he wanted it. He says in his book that his primary purpose in life was always to do science, with politics as a sideline. He frequently encountered enthusiastic young people who wanted to be full-time political activists and came to him for advice. He always advised them to become professionally qualified in some nonpolitical line of work, so that their political activities would be independent of financial needs. He said emphatically that it was wrong to depend on political activity to pay for groceries. He practiced what he preached. Throughout his life, from his first days as a teaching assistant in China to his last week as a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona, he taught students and gave lectures regularly. He knew that he was an outstanding teacher, and he took great pride in doing the job well.
When Fang came to America, his determination to be a scientist first and a political dissident second dictated his choice of Tucson, Arizona, as his home. His political friends urged him to settle in Washington, where he could have maintained close contact with the world of international politics. He chose Tucson because it was far away from the politicians and conveniently close to the Kitt Peak National Observatory where he could talk and work with astronomers. The University of Arizona campus at Tucson had an excellent department of astronomy, where he could teach good students and invite bright young scientists from all over the world to work with him. In America as in China, he was a passionate scientist and a reluctant politician.
After he was exiled from China and before he settled permanently in Arizona, Fang came again to the Institute for Advanced Study for the academic year 1991–1992. When he came for the second time, everyone knew that he was a famous political dissident, but he still talked mostly about science and not about politics. During this visit, I happened to mention to him a book that I was writing about science for the general public. I told him that one of my main problems was to explain the paradox of order and disorder in language that the unscientific reader could understand. Fang said immediately, “I did that.”
His response reminded me of my own teacher Hans Bethe, a great physicist of an earlier generation. Whenever someone suggested a difficult calculation to answer a scientific question, Bethe would say, “I can do that.” Bethe was famous for saying “I can do that.” Then he would sit down and do the calculation. Fang saying “I did that” meant that he had already done the calculation. He referred me to a book that he had written with his wife, Creation of the Universe. The book is a wonderfully clear and simple account of the evolution of the cosmos revealed by modern observations, written for readers untrained in mathematics. Chapter six, “How Order Was Born of Chaos,” is the best account that I have ever seen of the paradox of order and disorder.
The paradox of order and disorder was a big problem for people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries confronting the facts of biological and cosmic evolution. The paradox arises because heat is the most disordered form of energy. Heat is our name for the energy of atoms randomly moving in all directions. The atoms reach a state of maximum disorder when the heat is distributed evenly between objects all at the same temperature. According to the second law of thermodynamics, one of the firmly established laws of modern physics, heat always flows in one direction, from warmer objects to colder objects. Therefore it would seem that, as the universe evolves, warm objects should become cooler and cold objects should become warmer, with everything tending toward a final state of uniform temperature and maximum disorder. In the final state of uniform temperature, life would be impossible and the universe would be dead.
This gloomy picture of the future was known as the heat death. Learned scientists and scholars portrayed the heat death as our inevitable fate. The paradox appears when we look out at the real universe and see nothing resembling the heat death. Both in the world of astronomy and in the world of biology, we see evolution moving in the opposite direction, from disorder to order, from death to life. Everywhere we see new and intricately ordered structures arising out of primeval chaos. The most obvious and familiar example of order growing out of chaos is the emergence of our ordered system of sun and planets out of a featureless cloud of interstellar dust and gas.
Fang’s chapter “How Order Was Born of Chaos” is a beautiful piece of scientific explanation. He explains the paradox of order and disorder as a consequence of the peculiar behavior of gravity. Unlike other kinds of energy, gravitational energy is predominantly negative. Our gravitational energy becomes more and more negative as we walk downhill toward the center of the earth. In any situation where gravitational energy is dominant, temperature and energy flow in opposite directions. The flow of heat works against the heat death, making warm objects hotter and cool objects colder. Instead of disappearing, temperature differences grow as time goes on. In the universe as a whole, gravitational energy is always dominant, and so the heat death never happens. Order grows out of chaos because we live in a universe with structures dominated by gravity. The dismal images of doom and gloom associated with the heat death turn out to be illusory. Fang’s understanding of the paradox brings us into a hopeful universe, with beauty and diversity growing around us as we move into the future.
Fang took no scientific credit for his explanation of the paradox. He said it was nothing new. He said any good teacher could find things explained badly in old books, and could then explain them better to students. Creation of the Universe was written for students and not for experts. It was part of his job as a teacher.
Although Fang succeeded in keeping his life as a scientist separate from his life as a political dissident, he knew very well that his two lives were inescapably entangled. His influence in the world of politics and international relations depended on his reputation in the world of science. So long as the Chinese government was willing to tolerate his political unorthodoxy, he could play a useful role as an unofficial channel of communication between China and the international community.
Fang believed passionately in science, not only as an intellectual pursuit of understanding of nature, but also as an international enterprise in which people of diverse cultures and traditions could work together. Scientists throughout the world speak a common language and find it easy to collaborate. That is why scientists can communicate across political barriers more easily than diplomats and politicians. Scientists are often useful as channels of international communication about matters having little to do with science. We provide the world with a model demonstrating that a working international enterprise is possible.
The main theme of Fang’s book is his thirty-year-long struggle to reconcile in his own mind the demands of communism and science. At the beginning, as a teenager witnessing the defeat of the incompetent and corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek by the young revolutionary followers of Mao Zedong, Fang was an enthusiastic Communist and not yet a scientist. The official ideology of communism, proclaiming the victory of the working class and the triumph of social justice, gave him a cause that he could wholeheartedly support. Communism was a secular religion, providing him with a code of ethics and the moral support of a community of friends united in their loyalty to the party.
A few years later, Fang was a student, required to learn the classic texts of Communist doctrine as propounded by Marx and Engels and their followers, and also learning the practical details and methods of science. Communist doctrine had to be learned from the top down, starting from the infallible pronouncements of the founding fathers, and deducing statements about current events and policies. The statements about current events were sometimes absurd or contrary to common sense, but the students were required to accept them as true. Scientific doctrine had to be learned from the bottom up, starting from experimental facts and inquiring whether current scientific theories were supported by the facts. To become professional scientists, students were required to maintain a skeptical attitude toward theories, always ready to abandon a theory if observations of nature proved it wrong.
As Fang moved more deeply into science, he found it increasingly impossible to reconcile the two kinds of learning. He could not be a true believer with one half of his mind and a skeptic with the other. If scientific beliefs are always questionable, then Marxist dogma must also be questionable. At the same time, while Fang was slowly losing his faith in Marxist dogma as a consequence of his intellectual growth as a scientist, he was forced to experience the realities of working-class life on the farm and in the coal mine. The farm and the coal mine taught him that Marxist dogma was not merely questionable but wrong. On the farm and in the coal mine, Marxist dogma acted as a tool of oppression, keeping the working class at the bottom of a rigidly stratified society. Fang became more and more openly opposed to Marxist dogma, until the calamity at Tiananmen Square made him “an enemy of the people.” He had become an enemy of the state, but was never an enemy of the people.
It is important for those of us who are concerned with Chinese affairs today to understand that Fang was not a typical Chinese intellectual. The typical Chinese intellectual did not feel any fundamental incompatibility between Communist dogma and scientific skepticism. Just as the English scientists Newton and Boyle in the seventeenth century found room in their cosmos for Christian theology side by side with experimental science, the typical Chinese intellectual today finds room for Communist ideology side by side with capitalist enterprise. The ideology is now paper-thin, but China did not cease to be Communist when it became commercially prosperous. For the typical Chinese intellectual, to be a dissident was not an option. The options were to be a political operator working in the shadows or an academic operator working in public.
Fang understood very well at the time of his departure from China that his view of recent events would not be widely shared. His view of the Tiananmen catastrophe would not be visible for long to most of his friends who would remain in China. While he was still a refugee in the American embassy in Beijing, he wrote an essay, “The Chinese Amnesia,” which was translated by Perry Link and published in these pages in 1990.* In that essay he predicted that the Tiananmen event would remain forever an important turning point in the history of China as seen by the outside world, but that it would rapidly fade from view in the history as understood by Chinese people inside the country. All mention of the event and of the people who participated in it would be expunged from public records in China, and the witnesses who knew what happened would find it wise to remain silent. Within a few years, the majority of Chinese citizens would hear only vague rumors about the Tiananmen slaughter, and many people would not believe that it ever happened.
Perry Link describes the “Amnesia” essay in his afterword to Fang’s book. Link tells how he protested to Fang after reading it. The Tiananmen disaster had been an overwhelming experience for everyone in Beijing at the time, and it seemed incredible that it could be quickly forgotten. Fang told Link that his prediction was based firmly on earlier episodes in Chinese history when politically undesirable events were successfully expunged from public memory. History in China has always been written and rewritten by the winners. Link remarks in his afterword, twenty-five years after the essay was published, that Fang’s prediction has turned out to be accurate. In China today, the events at Tiananmen are rarely mentioned, and very few people consider what happened to be important.
Fang left behind a two-sided heritage, as a leading political dissident and as a leading scientific educator. He always considered his work as an educator to be the more important and more valuable contribution. History has proved him right. During his lifetime, he was more famous as a political dissident. He knew that his impact on the world as an educator would be more lasting and more transformative. As a political dissident, his heritage is to be a role model for a group of rebellious spirits, some of them exiles and others witnesses to the injustices of Chinese society. As a scientist and educator, his heritage is the rebirth of Chinese science as a full partner in the emerging world community of inquiring minds. n
—I am grateful to Perry Link for reading an earlier draft of this review and giving me his critical comments. He knows a hundred times more about China than I do. I made a number of changes where his judgments disagreed with mine. In a few places I ignored his objections and stayed with my own opinions. I am responsible for the mistakes if I am wrong.