Fang Lizhi, a leading Chinese dissident who helped fuel the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has died in exile in the United States, fellow dissidents said Saturday. He was 76.
Fang, a mentor to the Tiananmen protest movement which was brutally suppressed by the Chinese authorities, died Friday at his home in Tucson in Arizona, according to the dissidents' postings on Facebook and Twitter.
He had lived and worked as a physics professor at the University of Arizona since his controversial trip into exile in 1990.
Fang was "a treasure to China but he could not die in his own country [and] had to die in exile," his friend and fellow U.S.-based exiled dissident Wang Dan said on Facebook.
Wang hoped the Chinese people would never forget the "thinker" Fang, who he said "inspired the '89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy."
Wang felt that China will eventually "be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi," who rose from humble beginnings to become one of China's pioneer researchers in laser theory.
Fang was a top professor of astrophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China but was expelled from the university and the ruling Chinese Communist Party after his liberal ideas inspired the pro-democracy student movement of 1986-87, which had sowed the seeds for the bigger uprising in Tiananmen, in which he played no public part.
Following the bloody crackdown of the seven-week Tiananmen protests in which hundreds were believed to have died, Fang and his wife sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for one year before eventually going into exile in the U.S.
Beijing accused the couple of counterrevolutionary crimes, tantamount to treason, for which they could have been handed death sentences upon conviction.
China allowed Fang to leave the country in June 1990, ostensibly for medical treatment, but in what was seen as a concession to Washington, removing a major thorn in bilateral ties which had soured after the Tiananmen crackdown.
He was taken on a U.S military aircraft to Britain and then to the U.S. six months later.
Beijing had said that the couple had shown "signs of repentance," but Fang said later that "not a word" of a written account he gave before he left China "admitted any mistake or confessed any crime."
Fang, nicknamed "China's Sakharov" in a comparison to Soviet physicist and fellow human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, once said that "Marxism ... is like a worn dress that must be put aside." he said.
Meanwhile, in an open letter, Wan Dang and five others in exile following their involvement in the 1989 Tienanmen Square demonstrations appealed to the Chinese government to restore their right to return to their country.
"Because of political reasons, we were denied renewal of our passports, had our passports revoked, or were denied entry into China. In short, we have been deprived of our right to return to our country," said Wang and fellow dissidents Hu Ping, Wang Juntao, Wuer Kaixi, Wu Renhua, and Xiang Xiaoji.
"We believe that returning to one’s motherland is an inalienable right of a citizen. As rulers, you should not deprive us of our most fundamental human right because of differences in political views between you and us," said the April 6 dated letter, according to an English translation provided by the New York-based Human Rights in China group.
It said that the protection of human rights and advancement of democracy are the wishes of all Chinese people and that they "are willing to abide by the principles of openness and good faith to engage in dialogues with the relevant government departments to discuss concrete ways to solve this problem."
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.