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. He wanted to make it clear to the authorities that the students were acting autonomously.
After the June 4 massacre that ended the protests, the government published a list of people wanted for arrest. Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian were numbers one and two. On June 5 they took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, where they lived for thirteen months in a basement apartment that had no windows. On being told that Deng, in a conversation with Henry Kissinger, had said he wanted him to write a confession, Fang wrote one in the form of a forthright statement of human rights principles. In June 1990 the Japanese government negotiated the release of Fang and Li by offering economic concessions to China, and for the next nearly twenty-two years they lived in exile.
Fang’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern. Most have been literary figures—writers, editors, or professors of Chinese—who base their dissent in the study of Chinese society and culture. Fang was a natural scientist, and this made him different in important ways.
He was good at explaining how, for him, concepts of human rights grew out of science. In an essay in these pages, he named five axioms of science that had led him toward human rights: 1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs. 2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others. 3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth. 4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information. 5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.
Science was not only the origin of Fang’s thinking on human rights; it remained for him the grounds of authority on the issue. When he began speaking on human rights in the 1980s, his audiences paid him special attention because of his high position in Chinese academic life. No Chinese intellectual who has chosen to speak out on human rights has ever been as high “within the system” as Fang was when he began. To Fang, though, authority of this kind—the kind that derives from bureaucratic position—meant nothing. His own authority was the truths, discoverable by science, that lay within the patterns of the universe. This kind of grounding gave him confidence to confront high Party officials.
It was also the authority of science that created in those high officials an inexorable fear of Fang. Deng Xiaoping in particular appears to have had something of a Fang Lizhi complex in the late 1980s. (In his review of Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Fang describes Deng’s hypersensitive reaction, including an orchestrated press campaign and a quixotic lawsuit, to some casual comments that Fang had made in Australia about the foreign bank accounts of Chinese living abroad.) Measured by civil authority, the Party leaders of course outranked Fang. They could demote him, and did. But in science? There Fang had the upper hand. A Party leader could not belittle science. Science was part of the Four Modernizations, the guiding policy of the day. Moreover it was in Marxism. The leaders no longer believed in Marxism, but had to pretend that they did. Fang’s challenge from science frightened them more deeply than anything a writer or professor of Chinese might do.
Of the many comments from Fang’s Chinese admirers that I have heard in the days since his passing, here are three of my favorites:
Some call him China’s Sakharov, and that’s fine. But to me, Fang and the Communist Party are more like Galileo and the Roman church. An astrophysicist against powerful and arbitrary authority; the authority persecutes the physicist, but the physicist gets the truth right.
In the 1980s the words “human rights” could hardly be uttered in China. Today they can, and the term weiquan (“support rights”) is everywhere. No one person made this change. But no one person had more to do with it than Fang Lizhi.
Fang shows us a better way to be Chinese in the modern world. To be Chinese does not have to mean “supports Bashir al-Assad at the UN” or “puts a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison.” We can be better. Teacher Fang is our example.
Others of Fang’s friends have noted his literary talents. He occasionally wrote charming essays on topics such as his courtship with Li Shuxian, or about how, as a boy, he and his friends rigged the doorbell of a famous opera singer so that it wouldn’t stop ringing, then hid to watch from a distance. His wry wit was a constant joy to friends as well as a stiletto in political debate. I remember watching a Western journalist interview him during the student protests in spring 1989. When the interview was over the reporter asked if there were a way he could ask follow-up questions, if necessary. Fang said “sure,” and gave the reporter his telephone number.
“We’ve heard that your phone is tapped,” the reporter said. “Is it?”
“I assume so.” Fang grinned.
“Doesn’t that…bother you?” the reporter asked.
“No,” said Fang, “for years I’ve been trying to get them to listen to me. If this is how they want to do it, then fine!”
Borrowing Fang’s wit, we might note that the authorities did more than listen. They wanted him. The 1989 warrant for his arrest was never dropped, so that when he died he was still officially “wanted”: for “the crime of counterrevolutionary incitement” and as “the biggest black hand behind the June Fourth riots.”