Fang Lizhi

Thumbnail image for Fang Lizhi.jpgBack in 1988, when the Tiananmen Square crackdown and Fang Lizhi's celebrated exile to the United States were still a year or more in the future, Orville Schell did a long article about Fang and the prospects for Chinese reform in the Atlantic. It is still very much worth reading, on the occasion of Fang's death this week. (As a reminder: Fang was a celebrated astrophysicist in China whose views on democratic reform helped inspire the student protests of 1989. Also as a reminder: this was at a time of widespread reform movements against Communist regimes, notably the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, both shortly after Tiananmen. Fang was granted asylum in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and after nearly a year there was allowed by Chinese authorities to leave the country and come to the United States, where he lived and taught most of the time since.)

Also worth reading: Fang Lizhi's recent works on his native country and its hopes for political evolution, mainly in the New York Review of Books. These include a harsh review of Ezra Vogel's recent biography of Deng Xiaoping; a look back on the "confession" that was part of Fang's eventual exit from China; and the original text of the statement he issued after the Tiananmen shootings, these latter two translated by Perry Link.

The last words of Schell's article are resonant, 24 years later. He wrote them during a moment when it appeared that China might be part of the worldwide shift away from Communist authoritarian control:

Liberal friends who only the winter before had been gloomy about the prospect for political reform in China were now filled with a new optimism.

But, chastened by the many earlier abortive reform efforts, Fang remained skeptical about the future. When asked by the Hong Kong journal Baixing Banyue Kan how he viewed the outcome of the Congress and Zhao's clearly reform-minded speech to the Party, he replied, "It is true that Zhao's report was very stirring. But in his own time Mao Zedong made speeches that were even more stirring." After citing a host of ways in which the Party continued to conduct itself in an undemocratic fashion, Fang went on to warn, "It's not enough just to read of speeches in newspapers. One must always keep one's eye on reality...There are still just too many examples of authorities saying one thing but doing another."
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In