Fang Lizhi: China's Andrei Sakharov

The speeches of the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi have galvanized students and given political discourse in China a new depth of field, and although he has been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party his influence is undiminished

WHEN I returned to Beijing in the fall of 1986, after an absence of six months, it was hard not to feel disoriented by the sudden change in political climate. During the previous spring and summer, political and intellectual life had begun to thaw to an extent unprecedented since the Chinese Communist Party had come to power, in 1949. Following on the heels of a bold program of economic reform and of opening up to the outside world, which China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, had launched in 1978, this relaxation of Party control over economic, intellectual, and political life had filled the Chinese with a heady new sense of possibility. The increasing tolerance of individualism and freedom of expression reflected the surprising but growing conviction among China's new generation of reform-minded leaders that their country would never be successful in its efforts to modernize unless some dramatic way could be found to re-energize its people and win their willing participation in a new drive toward economic development. Political reform and democratization became their new rallying cries. But to the older, hard-line Maoists, who had spent their lives fighting for a very different kind of revolution--one that stressed centralization and Party discipline, rather than individual initiative and democracy--this latest wave of reform appeared as at best an unwelcome disruption and at worst a dangerous form of apostasy. While young reformers watched enthusiastically as official publications began to bloom with articles advocating freedom of speech and the press, the separation of governmental powers, and the protection of human rights, and as intellectuals publicly called for the democratization of almost all aspects of Chinese life, revolutionary hard-liners looked on with displeasure, waiting for an auspicious moment to counterattack.

A deep wariness of speaking too freely had been burned into many senior intellectuals by the crackdowns that had, with a horrifying inevitability, terminated all previous interludes of liberalism in Chinese Communist history. While it was true that fall that the boundaries of acceptable political discourse were broader than ever, most intellectuals nonetheless prudently continued to try to stay within the elusive margins of Party tolerance. But there were a few who, seemingly without regard for their future, dared speak out openly. The most vocal of these was a fifty-two-year-old astrophysicist of international stature named Fang Lizhi, who by last year had become legendary throughout China for his forceful calls for democracy and his forthrightness in publicly saying what he believed.

When I first met Fang, in his Beijing apartment last fall, what impressed me about him was his good cheer and guilelessness. He laughed easily--an infectious laugh that spiraled spontaneously into something like a whinny carrying everything with it in a burst of unpremeditated mirthfulness. He was dressed simply, in a knit shirt, a tweed coat, and permanent-press slacks. Tortoise-shell glasses gave him a slightly owlish look. He made an initial impression of ordinariness--until, that is, he began to talk. Then I instantly sensed that I was in the presence of a man of not only keen intelligence and conviction but fearlessness. The longer I was with him, the more the quality struck me. Far from being a studied posture adopted as a means of resisting intimidation, Fang's fearlessness appeared deeply rooted in his personality, which in spite of its manifest self-confidence betrayed no suggestion of arrogance. Seldom have I met a man who, although at the center of an intense and dangerous national controversy--the Communist Party had laid the blame for the student demonstrations of the previous winter on his frequent speeches to student groups, in which he openly advocated Western democracy--so lacked the kind of polemical energy that often makes zealots of a lesser kind shrill and self justifying. Although Fang obviously cared deeply about the cause of democracy in China, he was not one to thrust it upon anyone; and although he had been politically persecuted throughout his life, there was no hint of rancor or resentment in his politics. What he was for was so much ascendant over what he was against that the notion of enemies seemed utterly alien to his intellectual, political, and emotional vocabulary.

What made being with him strangely uncharacteristic of my experiences in China was his complete lack of the self-censorship that renders many other Chinese intellectuals of his generation incapable of speaking their minds. Never overriding his thoughts and feelings with the usual subtle (and frequently unconscious) genuflections to the official political line of the moment, Fang spoke so openly about what he was thinking and what he believed that one had to suppress the urge to warn him of the dangers of such candor.

Such warnings have in fact come from many quarters, but Fang is impervious to them. "Everything I have ever said is open," Fang told me. "I have nothing to hide. And since I have already said everything that I believe many times in public, what is the point of trying to hide things now, in private?"

To recount those many times is to tell the story of his life, which began in Beijing in 1936, when he was born into the family of a postal clerk from the city of Hangzhou. He entered Beijing University (Beida) in 1952, as a student of theoretical and nuclear physics, and although he quickly distinguished himself as an unusually capable scientist, politics was as important to him as his studies. His first recorded brush with political dissent occurred one February day in 1955, during the founding meeting of the university chapter of the Communist Youth League (an organization that arranges political and recreational activities for young people and that anyone who intends to become a Party member must join). The league branch secretary from the physics department had been addressing the gathering, in the auditorium of Beida's administration building, and had just begun discussing the role of the league in stimulating idealism among China's youth when Fang Lizhi, then a nineteen-year-old student, dashed up onto the stage, indicating his desire to speak.

"Some of us students in the physics department thought the meeting was too dull, just a lot of formalistic speeches," Fang has said. "So we decided to liven things up a bit. When it came time for our branch secretary to speak, he let me express my opinion, since I had the loudest voice." Taking over the stage from the secretary, Fang redirected the discussion to the general subject of the Chinese educational system. "I said that this kind of meeting was completely meaningless. I asked what kind of people we were turning out when what we should have been doing was training people to think independently. Just having the Three Goods [good health, good study practices, and good work] is such a depressing concept and hardly enough to motivate anyone.

"After I spoke, the meeting fell into complete disorder. The next day the Party committee secretary, who was the top person in charge of ideological work for students at Beijing University, spoke all day. He said that although independent thinking was, of course, all well and good, students should settle down and study."

In spite of his attraction to politics, Fang did in fact settle down to study, earning straight As at Beida. There he met his future wife, Li Shuxian, who was a fellow student in the physics department, which she ultimately joined as a faculty member. In 1956, at the age of twenty, Fang graduated from Beida and was assigned to work at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Modern Physics Research. But a year later the Anti-Rightist Campaign began, and Chinese intellectuals who had spoken up during the previous Hundred Flowers Movement were ruthlessly persecuted. Because he had written a lengthy memorial on the need to reform China's educational system so that politics would not stifle scientific research, Fang was severely criticized. Unlike many other intellectuals under pressure, he refused to recant his alleged misdeeds and was expelled from the Party in 1957.

"For a long time after the Anti-Rightist Campaign, I continued to believe in communism," Fang told me. "Even after I was expelled from the Party, I continued to have faith in Chairman Mao and believed that it must have been I who was wrong."

Wrong or not, as a promising young scientist he was greatly needed by China in its early efforts to industrialize and was allowed to keep his position at the Institute of Modern Physics Research. He was ultimately even sent to help organize a new department of physics at the University of Science and Technology (Kexue Jishu Daxue, or Keda for short), which was just then being set up in Beijing. During the next few years, while teaching classes in quantum mechanics and electromagnetics, Fang also conducted research on solid-state and laser physics. Despite his previous political troubles, and because of his obvious talent in his field, in 1963 he was promoted to the position of lecturer.

But no sooner had Fang's life and career begun to resume a more normal course than the Cultural Revolution broke out, in 1966, and like so many other Chinese intellectuals. Fang once more ran afoul of politics. This time he was "struggled against" as a "reactionary" and incarcerated in a niupeng, or "cow shed"--a form of solitary confinement often chosen by the Red Guards for intellectuals of the "stinking ninth category" (Maoists had divided Chinese society into nine categories). After a year's imprisonment he was released and "sent down" to the countryside in Anhui province to work with the peasantry. Here, because of the paucity of scientific books available to him, he was forced to change the focus of his scholarly work and to concentrate on the study of relativity and theoretical astrophysics.

"I had only one book with me--the Soviet physicist Lev Landau's Classical Theory of Fields," Fang told me. "For six months I did nothing but read this book over and over again. It was this curious happenstance alone that caused me to switch fields from solid-state physics to cosmology.

"It was then that I began to feel that perhaps Mao was not so good for the country. But because at the time most of us intellectuals still believed in communism, we were left with a difficult question: If not Mao, whom should we follow? There was, of course, no one else, and he was the embodiment of all idealism.

"After the Cultural Revolution started, everything became much clearer. I realized that the Party had not been telling the truth, that they had in fact been deceiving people, and that I should not believe them anymore. You see, a sense of duty, responsibility, and loyalty to the country had been inculcated within me as a youth, but what I saw around me made me feel that the leaders weren't similarly concerned about the country and weren't shouldering responsibility for its people."

In 1969, when the Academy of Sciences began to move several of the undergraduate departments of Keda from Beijing to the provincial capital of Hefei, in Anhui, Fang, along with several dozen other academics who had been stigmatized with rightist labels, was exiled with them. In Hefei, Fang began to study and teach astrophysics, but because of the political cloud hanging over him, he was able to publish the results of his research only under a pseudonym.

His full rehabilitation did not come about until 1978, two years after the fall of the Gang of Four. At this time he regained his Party membership and received tenure at Keda, shortly thereafter becoming China's youngest full professor. The next few years were perhaps his most creative, from a scientific point of view. Fang, who was increasingly interested in the cosmology of the early universe, began to publish frequently on this subject, now under his own name. (By 1986 he had more than 130 articles to his credit.) In 1980 his popularity at Keda led to his being elected director of the fundamental-physics department, with more than 90 percent of the faculty's 120 votes. However, his politically progressive views and outspokenness continued to cause the Party to distrust him. Because of secret reports from a fellow professor impugning his political reliability, Fang, though nominated several times for the post of vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, was rejected.

What was ultimately to have the profoundest impact on Fang was his readings in politics and his travels abroad, which became possible as a result of Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy. In 1978 Fang left China for the first time, to attend a conference on relativistic astrophysics in Munich. Subsequent trips took him to the Vatican, for a cosmology conference; to Bogota, Colombia, for another conference; to Italy, as a visiting professor at the University of Rome; to England, as a senior visiting fellow at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University; to Japan, as a visiting professor at Kyoto University's Research Institute for Fundamental Physics; and finally to the United States, where he was in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, from March through July of 1986. These trips abroad were to influence deeply the way that Fang looked at the Chinese socialist system and the role of intellectuals within it.

In spite of many years of political harassment and periodic near-total isolation from the world scientific community, Fang had now become one of the very few scientists from the People's Republic ever to have received such international scientific attention and acclaim. Fang was even more unusual for his interest in education, philosophy, and politics, as well as science--interests that grew out of his conviction that in any truly creative mind science and philosophy, of which he took politics to be an extension, were indissolubly bound together.

Just as scientific research was a way of bearing witness to truths about the natural world, so, Fang believed, intellectual and political inquiry were ways of bearing witness to truths about the political and social world.

Interviewed by the writer Dai Qing in the newspaper Guangming Daily in December of 1986, Fang explained his notion of the special role that he hoped scientists, as intellectuals, would play in the development of a modern China. He noted, prophetically in his own case, that "almost invariably, it has been the natural scientists who have been the first to become conscious of the emergence of each social crisis." Then, evidently paraphrasing Einstein, he declared, "Scientists must express their feelings about all aspects of society, especially when unreasonable, wrong, or evil things emerge. If they do otherwise, they will be considered accomplices."

Fang's remedy for the claustrophobic intellectual climate of most Chinese educational institutions was to scrutinize their shortcomings both honestly and relentlessly. "The emergence and development of new theories necessitates creating an atmosphere of democracy and freedom in the university," he told Dai Qing. "In the university there should be nothing that...allows no questioning of why it must be upheld. There should be no doctrine allowed to hold a leading or guiding position in an a priori way."

As he tried to play his part as a "conscience of civilization," one of the most shocking things that Fang began to say publicly was that socialism as an ideology was passe for China. "When I first said this, back in 1980, Fang Yi, the Vice-Premier in charge of science and technology, called me in and criticized me," Fang Lizhi told me with an impish smile one day. "He said, 'How could you say a thing like that?' And I replied, 'I said it because I believe it.' He said, 'Well, I might go even so far as to say that I agree with you, but one can't just come right out and say such a thing!'"


In 1984 Fang Lizhi was finally promoted to the position of vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, and Guan Weiyan, a colleague in physics, was appointed president. Clearly, Fang's star was now rising. There were soon efforts among the liberal reform faction in China's central leadership to nominate Fang for high provincial office, and even to confer upon him membership in the Party's central Committee--all this despite his refusal to maintain Party discipline and promote its mythology.

The next year the Ministry of Education issued a report, "The Reform of China's Educational Structure," calling for dramatic changes in the country's university system. It recommended that administrators be elected to top positions by committees of academics, rather than being appointed by the Party. Fang and Guan designed and proposed a radical plan to redistribute power horizontally at Keda. Instead of keeping all authority concentrated in the hands of top-level administrators, allowing them to control research funding, the awarding of degrees, and faculty promotions, these functions would be spread out among special committees and the departments themselves.

A second reform proposed in the plan involved establishing the right of faculty and staff members to audit all administrative meetings. Fang held that since the socialist system claimed to have made the people the masters of their own country, the people should have the right to know what their leaders were up to. This was an especially important concept for Fang, because he believed that a major defect of Chinese society was that in the absence of oversight provisions, problems and grievances piled up unsolved until any given situation became explosive.

A third area of reform that concerned Fang and Guan was free speech. They wished to establish firmly the right of students and faculty members not only to speak out on campus but also to remain free from subtler but not necessarily less crippling forms of ideological repression. Fang and Guan wished to create an open academic and political environment at Keda, and since in their view diversity was something to be cultivated, not suppressed, it was their conviction that anyone should be able to put up a handbill and hold an event on campus without having to seek prior approval from some higher authority.

This was indeed a bold vision of academic freedom, such as the People's Republic of China had never known. But Fang and Guan did not stop there. To foster openness with a cosmopolitan dimension, they also sought to establish as much contact as possible with the outside world. By the end of 1986 more than 900 faculty members and students from Keda had been sent abroad to visit, lecture, and study, and more than 200 foreign scholars had visited Keda. Exchange programs had been set up with educational institutions in the United States, Japan, Britain, Italy, and France.

Fang's experience with this reform process convinced him that the most meaningful task he could undertake in China was not scientific research but pressing for change in the country's educational system. "I am determined to create intellectual and academic freedom--this will be my top priority," he said, with his usual directness, when asked about his future plans. In the context of a Western democracy, where traditions like intellectual and academic freedom are taken for granted, such a declaration might sound commonplace, but coming from a university vice-president in China just as it emerged from the Cultural Revolution, his words had the effect of throwing down a gauntlet to Party hard-liners.

Moreover, while Fang was helping to fashion these educational reforms at Keda, he was by no means shutting himself off from the broader political issues and currents of the country at large. In fact, in 1985 and 1986 Fang seemed to turn up whenever and wherever there was open political discussion or ferment, a habit that must have caused consternation among those hard-liners in the Party hierarchy whose conception of the "mass line" had never included radical educational reform, much less a spontaneous political campaign for the democratization of Chinese life, led by roaming freethinkers like Fang.

On November 4, 1985, in a stirring, free-ranging, and sometimes even humorous talk that held his Beida audience spellbound, Fang encouraged the students to hold on to their social concern and political activism and to look to the West for new models of intellectual commitment if none could be found in China. Addressing himself to the larger issues of China's backwardness and his hopes for its future, Fang declared,

"...There is a social malaise in our country today, and the primary reason for it is the poor example set by Party members. Unethical behavior by Party leaders is especially to blame. This is a situation that clearly calls for action on the part of intellectuals...."
"...We are obligated to work for the improvement of society....This requires that we break the bonds of social restraint when necessary. Creativity has not been encouraged over the past three decades as being in keeping with Chinese tradition. It is a shame that, as a result, China has yet to produce work worthy of consideration for a Nobel Prize. Why is this?..."
One reason for this situation is our social environment. Many of us who have been to foreign countries to study or work agree that we can perform much more efficiently and productively abroad than in China....Foreigners are no more intelligent than we Chinese. Why, then, can't we produce first-rate work? The reasons for our inability to develop our potential lie within our social system....[This translation and several that follow are those of the China Spring Digest.]"

Placing the blame for China's backwardness on the closed nature of its society, Fang continued,

"...Some of us dare not speak out. But if we all spoke out, there would be nothing to be afraid of. This is surely one important cause of our lack of idealism and discipline.
"Another cause is that over the years our propaganda about communism has been seriously flawed....Room must be made for the great variety of excellence that has found expression in human civilization. Our narrow propaganda seems to imply that....nothing that came before us has any merit whatsoever. This is the most worthless and destructive form of propaganda. Propaganda can be used to praise Communist heroes, but it should not be used to tear down other heroes....
"We Communist Party members should be open to different ways of thinking. We should be open to different cultures and willing to adopt the elements of those cultures that are clearly superior. A great diversity of thought should be allowed in colleges and universities. For if all thought is narrow and simplistic, creativity will die. At present there are certainly some people in power who still insist on dictating to others according to their own narrow principles....
"We must not be afraid to speak openly about these things. In fact, it is our duty. If we remain silent, we will fail to live up to our responsibility."

The Beida students had never heard a respected faculty member speak publicly like this before, and Fang's effect was electrifying. Moreover, it was only one of many talks that Fang would give over the next year, as he traveled to other cities, quickly earning himself the reputation of being China's foremost freethinker. Fang Lizhi is a singular figure in post-Mao China. The content of his speeches made it difficult to remember that he was still a member of the Chinese Communist Party, where, as ever, the watchwords were discipline and obedience.

Meanwhile, so successful were Fang and Guan's reforms at Keda that the official Party newspaper, the People's Daily, caught up in China's new dalliance with democratic thinking, ran a series of five articles, in October and November of 1986, describing them in the most adulatory way, a move tantamount to giving them the Party's seal of approval. In fact, the writer, Lu Fang, was so impressed by what he had seen at Keda that from the very first sentence of the first article he seemed unable to control his enthusiasm. Instead of reciting a litany of facts and statistics to introduce his subject, as this genre of news feature often calls for, he dove right in and began, "During my trip to Keda, everywhere I breathed the air of democracy." Lu went on to praise the openness and "unconstrained atmosphere" of the university in which students and faculty members worked together.

Still mindful during those halcyon days of democratic dialogue that even the warmest political climate in China can suddenly frost over, the People's Daily published another article that fall asking rhetorically if it were not a concern that the radical experiments in educational reform at Keda might someday be branded as "wholesale Westernization," a derogatory term used by Party hard-liners to describe any overtly Western phenomenon. "Perhaps someone will bring up the question," the article went on to answer itself. "In applying a system of 'separate and balanced powers' to run a college, is there not always some danger of being suspected of imitating Western capitalism? But the methods used at Keda are actually in accordance with the directions of Party Central regarding the 'practical application of democratization to every aspect of social life.' They are in accordance with the Constitution which prescribes academic freedom. It [democracy] is not something that is being 'sneaked in the back door' here. We should have no suspicion about that."

The effect of these articles in the People's Daily was both to transform Keda into an official new post-Mao model university and to elevate Guan and Fang to the status of semi-official national heroes. The glare of the spotlight, far from cowing Fang into silence as it might some intellectuals, seemed hardly to faze him. In November, Shanghai's World Economic Herald ran an article that quoted Fang as declaring that China's intellectuals "lack their own independent mentality and a standard of value, always yield to power, and link their futures to an official career...And once they become officials themselves, many intellectuals change their attitude from being absolutely obedient to higher levels to being absolutely conceited. They suppress and attack other intellectuals."

Fang went on to call on intellectuals to remake themselves and, instead of being slavishly obedient to those above them, to "straighten out their bent backs." And then, as if he had despaired of the older generation, he ended with an appeal to Chinese to "place their hopes in those younger intellectuals who are growing up during the nineteen eighties."

It was one thing to crusade for educational reforms, even to discuss democracy, human rights, or checks and balances in the abstract, but here was Fang Lizhi implicitly appealing to youthful intellectuals (and also his academic peers) to form a powerful new check against Party power. This was a bold challenge indeed, for Fang seemed to be implying that the Party's failure to reform itself from within now justified pressure from without.


It was obvious to anyone watching that students were powerfully drawn to Fang, not only by his intelligence, candor, and irreverence but also by his willingness to name names. Never had a leader spoken to them so unguardedly about Party pomposity, favoritism, prejudice, even corruption. The Party might have tolerated his tweaking its tail over such apparent hypocrisies as a Constitution that guaranteed rights it was not prepared to defend, but it could hardly countenance his outright attack on high-ranking officials.

In 1985, for instance, Fang publicly denounced the vice-mayor of Beijing, Zhang Baifa, for contriving to join a scientific delegation that had been invited to attend a conference on synchrotron radiation in New York state. Fang had learned of the case because China's lone synchrotron was jointly operated by his own university and the Institute of High Energy Physics, in Beijing. Fang's refusal to overlook this kind of junketing and feather-bedding by the Party elite, and his willingness to bring such cases to the attention of student activists, made him an even greater favorite of young intellectuals disgusted with such behavior.

When criticized by ranking Party leaders for his lese majeste, Fang replied, "As for Zhang Baifa appropriating the conference seats that should have gone to the University, I just want to ask him what he knows about synchrotrons. Is he willing to take a test?" As a result of his attack on the vice-mayor, Fang's trip to the Institute of Advanced Study, planned for January, 1986, was suddenly canceled. It was not until two months later that Fang, still refusing to recant, was finally allowed to leave the country.

Upon returning to China from the United States late that fall, just as appeals for political reform reached a crescendo, Fang traveled to several Chinese cities, making speeches, holding discussion groups, and giving interviews. His calls for democracy were bolder and more uncompromising than ever, and his fearlessness more pronounced. During November, particularly in student circles, Fang Lizhi's name was spoken more and more often. In Beijing, Hefei, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai--wherever he spoke--young people listened, recorded, and even transcribed his talks by hand, and sent them on to friends and student groups all across China, and even to colleagues studying in the United States and Europe. Chinese students, who had almost completely lost the kind of socialist idealism that had so distinguished their parents' generation during earlier phases of the Chinese Communist Revolution, now seemed perched on the precipice of a whole new system of beliefs. In the ideological vacuum of the 1980s they thirsted for someone and something to believe in. Just as these young Chinese had come to worship the West for its appliances, style, culture, and technology, now they were becoming entranced with its political ideas and "isms." Nowhere was the threadbare nature of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought more evident than in the way many of these young Chinese intellectuals found themselves drawn to the gospel of democracy as preached by Fang Lizhi.

When the Party repeatedly urged Fang to tone down his message, he refused, and even fired a salvo or two at Deng's sacred Four Cardinal Principles, which upheld socialism, the people's democratic dictatorship, the leadership of the Communist Party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought. When asked what he thought of them, he replied that although he realized they were "articles of faith among the political leadership," he preferred four different principles--namely, "science, democracy, creativity, and independence." He went on to observe that if his principles conflicted with those of the Party, it was only because the latter "advocated superstition instead of science, dictatorship instead of democracy, conservatism instead of creativity, and dependency rather than independence."

In November, Fang Lizhi gave several speeches in Shanghai. Appearing on the campus of Tongji University on November 18, he addressed a crowd of students on the subject of democracy, reform, and modernization, rousing them to repeated rounds of applause. "We now have a strong sense of urgency about achieving modernization in China," he told the students.

"...Chinese intellectual life, material civilization, moral fiber, and government are in dire straits....The truth is that every aspect of the Chinese world needs to be modernized....As for myself, I think that all-around openness is the only way to modernize. [It is interesting to note that Fang claims to have consistently used the term quanfangwei kaifang ("all-around openness") rather than quanpan xifanghua ("wholesale Westernization").] I believe in such a thorough and comprehensive liberalization because Chinese culture is not just backward in a particular respect but primitive in an overall sense....We are still far behind the rest of the world. And, frankly, I feel we lag behind because the decades of socialist experimentation since Liberation have been--well, a failure! [Long applause.] This is not just my opinion, it is clear for all to see. Socialism is at a low ebb. There is no getting around the fact that no socialist state in the post-Second World War era has been successful, nor has our own thirty-odd-year-long socialist experiment...I am here to tell you that the socialist movement from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao Zedong has been a failure....Clearing our minds of all Marxist dogma is the first step...."

After this uncompromising attack on China's socialist patron saints, Fang went on to proclaim:

"...We must remold our society by absorbing influences from all cultures. What we must not do is isolate ourselves and allow our conceit to convince us that we alone are correct...."

For Fang, the most "critical component" of democracy was human rights.

"....Human rights are fundamental privileges that people have from birth, such as the right to think and be educated, the right to marry, and so on. But we Chinese consider these rights dangerous. Although human rights are universal and concrete, we Chinese lump freedom, equality and brotherhood together with capitalism and criticize them all in the same terms. If we are the democratic country we say we are, these rights should be stronger here than elsewhere, but at present they are nothing more than an abstract idea. [Enthusiastic applause.]
"I feel that the first step toward democratization should be the recognition of human rights....But [in China] democratization has come to mean something performed by superiors on inferiors--a serious misunderstanding of democracy. [Loud applause.] Our government does not give us democracy simply by loosening our bonds a bit. This gives us only enough freedom to writhe a little. [Enthusiastic applause.] Freedom by decree is not fit to be called democracy, fails to provide the most basic human rights....
"In a democratic nation democracy flows from the individual, and the government has responsibilities toward him....We must make our government realize that it is economically dependent on its citizens, because such is the basis of democracy. But feudal traditions are still strong in China; social relations are initiated by superiors and accepted by inferiors....
"People of other societies believe that criminal accusations arising from casual suspicion harm human dignity and privacy. In China, on the other hand, it is not only normal for me to inform on you...but considered a positive virtue. I would be praised for my alertness and contribution to class struggle in spite of my disrespect for democracy and human rights...."

Having reiterated his belief that democracy made the people rather than the government sovereign, he went on to redefine the position of a university in Chinese society.

"...To liberate oneself from the slavery of governmental and other nonintellectual authorities, one need only view knowledge as an independent organism. But this is not so in China. Our universities produce tools, not educated men. [Applause.] Our graduates cannot think for themselves. They are quite happy to be the docile instruments of someone else's purposes. China's intelligentsia has still not cleansed itself of this tendency....Knowledge should be independent of power. It must never submit, for knowledge loses its value as soon as it bows to power...."

About Party pressure against his outspokenness, Fang said,

"I have heard grumbling about my political ideas, and that is fine. But I simply will not accept any interference in my scientific research....Democracy will have no protection until the entire scientific community is filled with this spirit. The products of scientific knowledge should be appraised by scientific standards. We should not be swayed by the winds of power. Only then can we modernize, and only then will we have real democracy."

Fang's speeches, putting into words what many of his colleagues thought but dared not utter in public, were like detonations beneath the whole edifice of Party thought control. Here at last, after thirty-five years during which almost all alternative or oppositional thoughts had been suppressed, was a man who when he spoke made no effort to censor the forbidden or divide his thoughts between the private and the public. Because Fang and a small number of other dissidents, including Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang, writers who in spite of almost constant Party persecution had continued to write exposes and critiques of Party malfeasance and stupidity, continued to speak and to suggest alternative ways of looking at the Party, China, and the world, political discourse in China had acquired a new depth of field, a three-dimensionality in which Party orthodoxy at least momentarily lost its monopoly.

Early that winter, just as Fang and many other Chinese intellectuals began evincing some sense of hope that China might succeed after all in evolving politically toward greater democratization, a series of events that no one had anticipated took place. Beginning in Hefei, at Fang's own university on December 5, and ending in Beijing on January 1, twenty large Chinese cities were suddenly racked by demonstrations in which students demanded a speed-up in political reform. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of urban China carrying placards and banners emblazoned with such slogans as NO DEMOCRATIZATION, NO MODERNIZATION and GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, AND FOR THE PEOPLE. Campuses were festooned with wall posters proclaiming anti-Party sentiments like I HAVE A DREAM, A DREAM OF FREEDOM. I HAVE A DREAM OF DEMOCRACY. I HAVE A DREAM OF LIFE ENDOWED WITH HUMAN RIGHTS. MAY THE DAY COME WHEN ALL THESE ARE MORE THAN DREAMS.

Alarmed by the specter of political chaos, the Party reflexively acted to quell the disturbances and to locate and root out their causes. Urged on by Maoist hard-liners, for whom the student uprising had been the embodiment of their worst fears about reform, the Party launched a swift counterattack.


In early January of last year, just after the student demonstrations had ended, the Anhui Daily (published in Hefei, the home of Keda) ran an article that, like advance artillery fire softening up an enemy target, seemed to be preparing its readers for a larger political campaign to follow. Taking a surprisingly soft line on the recent demonstrations, the article said that student "enthusiasm and concern about the fate of our nation and the future of reforms is understandable." The real blame for the recent upheavals, it suggested, lay elsewhere--namely, in the hands of that "very small number of people who had spurred on the trend of 'bourgeois liberalization,' propagated opinions against the Four Cardinal Principles, and taken advantage of the students' enthusiasm and lack of experience in society to achieve their political aims."

The Guangming Daily, which just the previous year had jubilantly proclaimed, "Our socialist system not only does not fear people speaking out but encourages them to do so," now lashed out menacingly against overly Westernized notions of democracy. On January 11 it ran a commentary with the headline "THE ESSENCE OF POLITICAL 'WHOLESALE WESTERNIZATION' MEANS DISCARDING SOCIALISM," which suggested that the students had been manipulated into demonstrating by a certain unnamed "Vice-President comrade of a university."

On January 12 Zhou Guangzhao, a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, summoned the Keda faculty to a special meeting. In the very center of the front row of the large meeting hall were two conspicuously empty seats. When the room fell silent, Zhou Guangzhao announced that the Party Central Committee and the State Council had decided to remove Guan Weiyan, the president of the university, and Fang Lizhi, the vice-president, from office and to reassign them, respectively, to the Institute of Physics and the Beijing Observatory, both in the capital.

After announcing this coup, Zhou Guangzhao accused Fang of having "disseminated many erroneous statements reflecting 'bourgeois liberalization'" and of having departed from the Four Cardinal Principles. He continued his attack by saying that Fang's "ideas of running the school by attempting to shake off the Party leadership and departing from the socialist road had resulted in extremely nasty consequences for Keda. These erroneous ideas were fully revealed in the recent disturbance created by students of this university."

Presented by

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus