Distinguished Guests: Fang Lizhi, the Chinese Sakharov | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Distinguished Guests: Fang Lizhi, the Chinese Sakharov

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Fang Lizhi had just graduated from Beijing University in 1957, when Mao Zedong's "antirightist" purge of intellectuals began. Fang had written a long article on the need for educational reform, and when he refused to denounce it he was expelled from the party. "At that time I was still a believer, or semibeliever, in Marxism, and felt that the criticism of free thought, including my own free thought, was not entirely unreasonable," he wrote last year. "What I just couldn't figure out, was why the Communist Party of China would want to use such cruel methods against intellectuals who showed just a tiny bit (and some not even that) of independent thought." Half a million people would be persecuted in this purge.

Fang was allowed to go on teaching and doing research in physics, but he also went on speaking his mind. During the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, he was sentenced to solitary confinement. After a year he was exiled to the provinces, where his disillusionment with the Communist Party became complete. He also shifted his interest from solid-state physics to cosmology, since he had only one book to read, one on theoretical physics.

He was finally allowed to return to academia, this time in astrophysics, and by 1978 his extraordinary papers on the nature of the universe, all published under a pseudonym, were no longer ignorable. He was given tenure at Keda University in Beijing, where he began publishing under his own name, and in 1984 was made vice president of the school.

In 1980 he began saying publicly that socialism was obsolete in China. By 1985 he was traveling and giving speeches to students, who he believed had the best chance to reform China. He said education was critical and urged the students to call for an open, democratic society. "Some of us dare not speak out," he said in one speech. "But if we all spoke out, there would be nothing to be afraid of." He also condemned the corruption and narrowness of the Communist Party. His forthrightness and irreverence shocked his listeners, who were used to innuendo and equivocation. When the party told him to temper his words, he refused.

In December 1986 tens of thousands of students demonstrated in 20 cities, calling for faster reform. Fang was one of a few dissidents accused of instigating the protests; he was removed from his university post. He was still allowed to teach and do research, but he was forbidden to make political speeches or to talk to foreign journalists, who had taken to calling him the Chinese Sakharov.

One of the demands of the students who occupied Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was the rehabilitation of the 53-year-old Fang and two other outspoken dissidents. Though they had done nothing openly to help the student movement, he and his wife, Li Shuxian, were among the few blamed for the demonstrations. The day after the crackdown, they asked for and were granted asylum in the U.S. embassy. The government accused them of spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda and issued a warrant for their arrest.

Fang, Li, and their son were trapped in the embassy for more than a year before the U.S. could negotiate their release. While he was there, he was given the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award. His acceptance speech was read at the ceremony. "Like all members of the human race, the Chinese are born with a body and a brain, with passions and with a soul," he wrote. "Therefore they can and must enjoy the same inalienable rights, dignity, and liberty as other human beings." He included a note of personal defiance. "I am doing my best to exercise to their fullest extent two of my remaining rights, namely the right to think and the right to inquire. I am continuing my research in astrophysics."

During the same time he also wrote an article for the New York Review of Books, on how the Chinese government tries to obliterate the memory of each generation's rebellion. "There is no publication dealing in depth with the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 to be found on the open book market in China," he wrote. Then he made a chilling point. "Western literature, so far as I know, also seems to lack such a book. Much of the history of Chinese Communism is unknown to the world, or has been forgotten. If, inside China, the whole of society has been coerced into forgetfulness by the authorities, in the West the act of forgetting can be observed in the work of a number of influential writers who have consciously ignored history and have willingly complied with the 'standardized public opinion' of the Communists' censorial system."

Fang, who recently arrived in the U.S. to take up a teaching position at Princeton University, will give a talk on China tonight at 8 PM at Wilson Hall, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia. Admission is $3; for more information and directions call 708-840-2787.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Woo.

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