In what was surely one of the most unusual experiences of my many years in China, we soon found ourselves sitting in an NBC screening room, watching China's head of state speak to China's number-one dissident via an American network-news interview. Even stranger than the situation itself was what Zhao was saying about Fang.
"Recently some Communist Party members were expelled from the Party, while others were persuaded to leave the Party," Zhao told Brokaw amiably, taking periodic swigs from a glass of Qingdao beer, which did not appear on the televised interview. "Maybe some people in the U.S. view this as a crackdown, as oppression against intellectuals. I do not agree. I think probably you are already familiar with the name of Mr. Fang Lizhi." As Zhao spoke his name, I glanced over at Fang, who sat bolt upright, as if at attention. He had a slight smile on his lips and a nonplussed expression on his face, and was utterly absorbed in what Zhao was saying. "He is a professor and a well-accomplished physicist. Over the last few years he has made many remarks and speeches and written articles criticizing the Chinese government and the policies of our Party. Sometimes he has even referred to the leadership in our country. He delivered such speeches at universities and also at other places. But he is still working in a very important post, and not long ago he even went abroad for an international academic conference. Moreover, recently he gave an interview to two journalists from Taiwan. [They had been the first journalists in some four decades to visit the mainland from Taiwan.] But he still maintains his original position and ideas. He was a Party member in the past. However, since he has such beliefs, he could no longer remain a Communist Party member. However, he is still an intellectual and a scientist, and is, moreover, respected for this. As such, he is still able to play his role in scientific and technological areas."
Going on to draw a distinction between the obligations of intellectuals who are Party members and those who are not, Zhao said, "If one joins the Party, one has to observe the regulations, the Party Constitution, and the Party program....If someone cannot observe them, he will be asked to leave....I think the Party itself should have the freedom to decide whether someone should remain in or not. But when intellectuals leave the Party, they will still be respected and will still be able to play their own roles in their own [professional] capacities. I don't think you could call this a crackdown."
Zhao spoke with confidence and conviction, and his words seemed so reassuring that it was difficult to remember that even though he had given his word the previous winter that Party harassment of intellectuals would cease, another wave of punitive action had followed that summer.
Although heartened by Zhao's new moderation and doubtless also by the way Party reformers had managed to bring China back from what seemed to be the brink, Fang remained uncompromising in his attitude about the need for democracy in China. When I asked him what his own generation might leave by way of a legacy to China's youth, he replied simply "That communism doesn't work. Although one cannot say that every sentence of Marxism-Leninism is wrong, one must admit that its basics are incorrect."
"Are there any Marxist true believers left in the Party?" I asked.
"They are very few. The whole atmosphere in China now is very bad. There is no morality or religion, or, for that matter, anyone in charge of our moral education. Formerly, the Party did this to some extent, but now belief in the Party and Marxism has literally collapsed. When you ask young people what they believe in, they tell you that they don't know. They have lost confidence in contemporary Chinese culture. They have nothing to be proud of. Except for those young people who are still idealistic because they have started to turn to democracy, there is a cultural and political vacuum."
"Do you put any hope in the Party's reform-minded leaders?"
"Perhaps there are a few who are idealistic, but on the whole they are primarily concerned with the question of power.
When I continued to press Fang as to whether he truly doubted that there was any hope for reform from within, he finally relented a bit. "Even if the leaders are not sincere, we must accept that this is the way things are going to be," he said. "One cannot say that success is absolutely impossible. But for now since the Chinese Communist Party is all there is in power and there are no other democratic channels open, we can only allow these leaders to lead and hope for the success of the reformers."
Then, brightening somewhat, he added, "The Chinese Communist Party now finds itself in a curious kind of competition with Gorbachev and his idea of glasnost. The two socialist countries now seem to be vying with each other to see which one can be most open and, by analogy, be most modern. China's Party leaders do not want to seem to be outdone by Gorbachev, particularly since some people have likened my situation to that of the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, and his situation has now improved so greatly. As far as I am concerned, this kind of competition is a very good thing not only for me but for Chinese intellectuals and China in general. The hard reality is that there is no way now to get the Chinese Communist Party out of power. To try to replace them, or even to persuade them to adopt some other political system, is impossible. This is the difference between dissidence in China and in the West--that dissident opposition can aspire completely to replace certain leaders. So now most Chinese feel that the only way to move forward is to hope that the Communist Party will be able to change its direction and do well by the country. Maybe the next generation will use different tactics and changed political forms, but this will be up to them. Right now, such things are impossible."
In November, when the Thirteenth Party Congress closed, with the reform-minded Zhao Ziyang firmly ensconced as Party General Secretary and with the Maoist hard-liners once again at bay, many Chinese intellectuals heaved a sigh of relief. As the student demonstrations and the ensuing expulsions of Fang and his colleagues receded from memory, and as official publications from the Party became refoliated with calls for political reforms and democratization, it did indeed appear that China had completed yet another of its seemingly endless political circles. In February of 1988 Fang was given a promotion from fourth to second rank of professorship and the Party allowed him to grant a short interview to The New York Times. 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."