Remembering Fang Lizhi

Fang Lizhi, who inspired a generation of Chinese students, was known as “China’s Sakharov.”
A commentary by Dan Southerland
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An arrest warrant for Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi (R) and his wife Li Shuxian being shown on state television on June 12, 1989 after both had taken refuge at the US embassy in Beijing.
An arrest warrant for Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi (R) and his wife Li Shuxian being shown on state television on June 12, 1989 after both had taken refuge at the US embassy in Beijing.

In late December 1986, student demonstrators were taking advantage of a Chinese leader’s talk about “democracy.”

There could be no modernization without democracy, declared then ruling Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang.

But could the students have been inspired by something more than calls for democracy as defined by a Party leader?

I later discovered that in several locations, an astrophysicist and vice rector of a provincial university was urging the students to think more independently.

I was a reporter in Beijing, but I had never heard of him before.

His name was Fang Lizhi.

Who was Fang Lizhi?

An undated photo of Fang Lizhi in exile in the U.S
An undated photo of Fang Lizhi in exile in the U.S Photo: RFA

Fang Lizhi, who died in Tucson, Arizona, on April 6 at the age of 76, was the son of a provincial postal clerk. A brilliant student, he entered prestigious Beijing University at the age of 16.

He also became a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but was expelled from the Party in 1958 during an anti-rightist movement, rehabilitated two decades later, and expelled once again in 1987.

He excelled in physics, and his scientific discipline led him to question authority not only in his own field but also as it was wielded by the Communist Party.

After being imprisoned in solitary confinement for a year in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution  and then sent to work in a rural mine and on a railroad, Fang lost faith in the Party. The conditions he saw in the rural areas did not fit with what the CCP was telling him.

In the 1980s, Fang daringly stated that Marxism-Leninism was a “worn-out dress that should be thrown away.”

But little did I understand at that moment in 1986 the electrifying effect that Dr. Fang’s bold rhetoric was having on university students.

He was urging the students not to wait for democracy to be handed down to them by the Communist Party.

Democracy “should be won through people’s own efforts,” Fang said.

As the writer Orville Schell later explained, Fang’s “call to intellectuals to throw off party domination by straightening out their ‘bent backs’ stunned students with its boldness even in the relatively open political environment of 1986.”

But it was still “a society long accustomed to self-censorship and public silence.”

So it’s not surprising that Fang’s boldness also shocked Party leaders, particularly the hard-liners who disagreed with Party Secretary Hu Yaobang’s more open-minded approach to the students.

Hu was forced to resign as leader of the Communist Party in January 1987 after being accused of encouraging those who promoted “bourgeois liberalization.”

Remembering students and workers 

I have three distinct memories from the 1986 demonstrations which Fang did more than anyone else to inspire.

One is of the fervor of the students then demonstrating in Shanghai. 

Another is of witnessing the moment when factory workers who were demanding their rights began joining the student demonstrators.

According to my Chinese sources at the time, the Party was concerned about the workers because of factory strikes which, while unreported in the state media, were widespread and increasing in number.

VOA reporter as hero

And then there was the evening that I spent with Max Ruston, a VOA correspondent whom the students in Shanghai greeted like a hero.

Chinese students wanting to know more about democracy had come to rely on VOA broadcasts for information about their own protests and the demonstrations occurring in other cities.

When Ruston told an inquiring crowd of students at People’s Square in the heart of Shanghai that he worked for VOA, the crowd began applauding, then cheering.

The students closely followed the two of us and peppered Ruston with questions.

The crowd grew larger, and Ruston decided that he had to make a run for it. It was impossible to do any more reporting. He himself had become the story.

Fang’s bold moves

Meanwhile, the Shanghai demonstrations had become part of the largest series of such events to occur since the abortive democracy movement of 1978-79, which was supported at first by Deng Xiaoping, China’s senior leader.
Deng subsequently crushed that movement when some of its leaders ended up criticizing Deng himself.

It was only later that I met Fang Lizhi for the first time.

Despite his expulsion from the Communist Party and a barrage of official criticism unleashed against  him, Fang refused to be silenced.

In the summer of 1988, Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, engaged university students in “democracy salons” that involved key student leaders.

Then, in January 1989, Fang made another bold move.

Fang, who had become known as “China’s Sakharov,” appealed directly to Deng to release the country’s political prisoners.

It was considered remarkable that he would address his appeal to Deng, something few Chinese would dare.

Reporting on Fang

When reporters spoke with Fang, he rarely went off the record. He didn’t pull his punches.

He spoke to me off the record only once that I recall. He said that he wanted to alert me to an important Communist Party document.

I was frequently followed by the state security police in those days, so I decided to visit Fang’s apartment after midnight.

In those days in Beijing, the streets were quiet after midnight, and I felt that I would not be followed if I drove out of my housing compound that late into the night.

One look at Fang’s simply furnished apartment told me that he had not benefited as some other Party members had from his privileged position.

He was no longer a member of the Communist Party but retained many friends who were. Like him, they were concerned about corruption and nepotism.

In June 1989 Fang and his wife were blamed for inspiring the pro-democracy movement and student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations ended after the army sent tanks into Beijing on June 3.

After the two were placed on a wanted list, they sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where they stayed for a year before being allowed to leave the country.

An arrest warrant issued by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau described Fang’s appearance, including his “slightly chubby” build and glasses worn to correct his nearsightedness.

Then in perhaps an unintended tribute to him, the warrant said that Fang “walks with erect gait and head uplilfted.”

After going into exile from China in 1990, Fang was active until the end of his life as a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor.





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