Fang Lizhi

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Back 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."