Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why China’s Rulers Hates Fang Lizhi (1991)

Fang Lizhi during his time at
Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies.
Photo: Hans Sandberg
Fang Lizhi died suddenly on April 6, 2012 at the age of 76. He was one of China's most famous scientist, and equally famous for his bold and unflinching defense of democracy and human rights in China, something that after the bloody supression of the democratic revolt of 1989 forced him to leave for the United States. What follows is an English translation of an article I wrote about Fang based on my interview with him at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Emperor of China once let his ministers know that there was a deer in a hall where there actually was a horse. They all had to go into the hall and was then asked one by one about what they had seen. Those who gave the "wrong" answer were decapitated. The truth always carried a high price in China; a country that by the way has still not signed the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. You could therefore say that Fang was lucky, because although he was forced to seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and later go into exile a year later -- he did escape with his life intact.

Today we find him at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies – a peaceful oasis for brilliant minds. This is where his idol Albert Einstein once worked, and this is where Professor Fang now ponders the structure of the universe, as well as China's future.

Many of his former students and colleagues are also in the U.S., and he participates in their discussions around the path to a democratic and enlightened China. (There are about 20.000 Chinese guest students and visiting scientists in the U.S.).

However, the debate back home is closed to him, at least for now.

-I do not have much contact with China today. Sometimes I manage to send a letter with someone who travels to China.

The normal channels of communications are too risky. Letters are opened, phone calls intercepted, faxes monitored and electronic mail systems are still rare in China.

In the eyes of the Chinese government, he is still a criminal on the run. He has personally had to bear much of the blame for the 1989 mass protests, even though he never directly took part in the movement. But in all fairness, you have to give them credit, at least in part.

-Ha, ha, ha! I believe that I had a strong influence on the students. They respected me, sometimes! Ha, ha, ha, .... but the authorities were not happy. In China you are supposed to play follow the leader. They don’t like independent minded people!

Fang played a role in China fully comparable with that of Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. There are even those who sees him as a future president, something he himself rejects as a sign of Chinese authoritarianism. If there is anything he has preached over the years, it is that the Chinese must stop looking for relief from above:

-Democracy is not a gift bestowed upon us from the higher ups. It is up to us to fight for it, he said on December 4, 1986 in a speech to the students of one of China's top engineering universities – the University of Science and Technology of China (also called Keda using an abbreviation if its Chinese name), located in the city of Hefei in Anhui Province.

At the time the political climate in China was more free than ever before or after (except for a few weeks in May 1989).

-People talked about the "open policy" even though there were still many limitations. We took advantage of this, but we exceeded the limits! In my first speech, I criticized Marxism solely from a scientific perspective. Later on, I broadened my criticism, he says.

During 1985-86 he travelled around the country and gave speeches peppered with democratic ideas. In addition, he gave candid interviews to Chinese and foreign press.

-It was risky, because the authorities' could come down hard. I believed that you had to take small steps, push the limits a little at a time, he says.

It may have been small steps to Fang, but for the Chinese gerontocracy it was a seven-league stride.

-The most important thing if you want reforms is that you have a democratic mindset, he told Shanghai's students in November and went on:

-Nobody says so, at least not straight out, but if you look at the actual results, orthodox socialism, from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao Zedong, was a failure.

This was blasphemy in Deng Xiaoping's China, where the government requires citizens to "maintain" the "four cardinal principles."
  1. The socialist road
  2. The dictatorship of the proletariat
  3. The party's leadership
  4. The leading role of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought
Fang said publicly that this was an expression of superstition, dictatorship, conservatism and a lack of independence. And he did not hesitate to criticize Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders by name, which in China is a double sin.

Despite his razor-sharp criticism, he did not deny that China has advanced since Mao's time.

-They would have made mincemeat out of me If I had said what I now say under "the seventeen years" (1949-1966), he told the Shanghai students in November 1986.

Unlike many of his intellectual colleagues, he was not content because things had improved, but attacked the key weakness in Deng's reforms -- China's fundamental lack of democracy and human rights.

-Democracy is not the same as easing up on the oppression a bit, he said in Shanghai.

How could he say this in a country that, when it came down to it, was a one-party state where thousands of dissidents were rotting away in penal labor camps? The answer lies in that he was first and foremost, an physicist. Scientists and engineers play a key role in Deng's modernization program why the regime has had more patience with them. Otherwise, he would have shared the fate of the young worker Wei Jingsheng, who in 1979 was sentenced to 15 years in China's Gulag for having called for a "Fifth Modernization", i.e. political freedom. Besides, there are those who suspect that he had a patron in the Communist Party Politburo member Hu Qili. But Fang denies this.

-We had met in the 1950s, but we didn’t have any contact until the 1985. By then he was a Politburo member, and the reason that we met was that he wanted to advise me not to say too much.

Hu Qili sent for Fang and they met on the way out from the former's office. There Fang was warned in a straightforward manner to not stir up trouble. But he refused to bend.

-It was a very short meeting, he says.
Did you feel at a disadvantage during this meeting with a high level policymaker?

-It annoyed me that we were on an equal level psychologically, because I was above him in terms of knowledge, ha, ha, ha ... He, on the other hand stuck to his position of power and felt he was above me, he answers.

They had first met in February 1955 when Fang was a talented 19 year old student and a party member. It was during a training conference where he rushed up to the podium and grabbed the microphone, crying out with a loud voice that he felt that it was a boring meeting and that it was time for the students to think more independently.

Fang Lizhi at the Institute of Advanced Studies. Photo: Hans Sandberg

Hu Qili was presiding at the meeting. His first comment was: "Fang, that was well said!"
However, on the next day, Hu Qili received signals from the Party that what had happened was not good at all. The Party secretary of the university spent the second day reading a long speech that criticized Fang's outburst.

-I was very confused, because I was still a Marxist at the time. I thought that it must have been I that was wrong.

Two years later, Fang would be expelled from the Communist Party for his youthful digression. That was under Deng Xiaoping's mass persecution of "bourgeois rightist."

It was only after Mao's "great leap forward" (1958-60), which cost tens of millions of lives, that Fang stopped blaming himself for his political problems.

-People were starving and I realized that something must be wrong. I lost confidence in Mao and became more independent, he says.

Unlike many other Chinese communists who disliked Mao's extremism, Fang was never attracted by Mao's rival Liu Shaoqi, or the Soviet Communist Party, which experimented with limited economic and political reforms under Nikita Khrushchev.

-I already had acquired a taste for freedom, which was the tradition among physicists like for example Einstein. He was very open-minded in his thinking, and I liked his ideas. I was already influenced by ideas from the West. The Soviets had incidentally also criticized Einstein and quantum mechanics, something I did not like.

Science provided Fang with the fixed point he needed to move the political universe of China’s Communists. He often thought of how Galileo had to fight for truth against the Medieval church's ideological oppression. During the Cultural Revolution, Fang and most intellectuals were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the masses" – as Mao's anti-intellectual campaign was called euphemistically.

At that time, it wasn’t possible to take even the smallest step towards freedom.

-We were finished. We were completely isolated! You couldn’t do anything, he says.

Eventually he was allowed to return to Beijing, but in 1969 he was transferred to Hefei, where China’s National Academy of Sciences had set up a new technical college. It would take until 1978 before Fang regained his "political rights," and the 21-year old expulsion from the Party was lifted.

He began a very active scientific life and he became China's youngest professor in 1981 at the age of 45. The reforms and his new status allowed him to take a series of trips abroad as a visiting professor and to participate in scientific seminars. This opened up new worlds and new perspectives, which only strengthened his conviction that China must open up completely to the outside world.

Beijing's Ancient Astronomical Observatory.
Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2001.
However, the Party saw this as a capitulation for Western influence, but Fang saw a free cultural exchange as a prerequisite for a real modernization of China. It didn't take long before he became a household name in scientific circles, both in China and internationally. In 1984, he was elected vice-president of Keda in a democratic election, despite opposition from the Party. He initiated a series of educational reforms, which in the fall of 1986 was hailed in the Party's main newspaper, the People's Daily. His reforms replaced the Communist Party's dominance of the education with academic freedom, creativity, and a wide-ranging international exchange.

On December 5, the day after Fang told Keda’s students that democracy is something you have to fight for, 3,000 of them took to the streets in Hefei carrying banners saying "No Democratization, No Modernization!" and "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" Later in December, 5,000 students marched in Wuhan, and 30,000 in Shanghai. The protest soon spread to Kunming, Chongqing, Shenzhen and by January, students marched to the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This was the development that the party's reform friendly wing had feared, or rather, they feared the counter reaction that it could trigger.

That was probably why Fang was followed by a member of the government during his "tour" of 1985-1986. In the city of Ningpo, he learned that Wan Li, the deputy prime minister, and member of the Politburo, had requested to have his speeches recorded.

Wan Li followed him back to his university and soon called a meeting for about one hundred provincial education directors, party secretaries and governors. It was formally a meeting about education policy, but the real purpose was to make Fang shut up and to quell the growing student protest movement.

-He criticized my belief that education should be independent of the party, says Fang, who at first did not answer the attack, something that irritated Wan Li.

-Fang Lizhi! Come up here and report to me, he shouted.

-Then I stood up and gave him a straightforward answer, says Fang. I am the vice-president of a university, and I know how to organize teaching and research. I know how to do this better than you, and I need no interference from the party!

Such recklessness both enticed and frightened Fang’s colleagues, who came up , after the meeting and said "you did well," and that they liked his views, but also told him to keep quiet about them! This was, as Orville Schell points out in his brilliant book about this time "Discos and Democracy," one of the few occasions in Communist China's history that anybody had publicly challenged a top leader on the issue of democracy.

The demonstrations in the winter of 1986-87 led to a reaction and it was strong. The conservative forces in the party pressed on, and Deng Xiaoping responded by sacrificing his proposed successor, the Party Chairman Hu Yaobang. He also sharpened the rhetoric against "bourgeois liberalism", while cleverly appointing the liberal reformer Zhao Ziyang to take over after Hu. The idea was to silence the opposition both to the right and the left, and let the economic reforms continue. Fang and two other free-thinkers, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruoshi, were expelled from the party. Fang and his boss at Keda, Guan Weiyan, were both fired from their jobs. What was strange for Chinese conditions was that Hu Yaobang retained his position in the Politburo, and Fang was given a new job as a researcher at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory. It was a signal to the intellectuals that the government would not go back to Mao's policies after all.

If it hadn't been for a major gaffe by the party, Fang’s star would by then have passed its zenith.

-The Communist Party distributed my speeches all over the country in order for people to criticize them, but people identified with me and my speeches instead. Before that I was only well known among physicists and students, he says.

Either it was a blunder from the conservatives, or a clever trick from the radical reformists. For Fang, it was an unexpected help in breaking through the main obstacle to freedom of opinion in China – the Party's monopoly of information.

It can be difficult for an outsider to understand exactly how difficult it is to maintain what we take as normal contacts in China. The country is huge, poor, and has an extremely underdeveloped infrastructure. Simple things, like making a phone call or visiting a friend in another city, are difficult in China -- both for practical and political reasons.

-I had no telephone until 1987, but I still never communicated with my friends using a telephone, says Fang.

Only two Chinese in a thousand have a telephone. Employment, housing and travel are still things that require approval from the authorities, i.e. approval by the Communist Party. Snitching and spying on citizens are part of everyday life in a way that brings to mind George Orwell's book "1984". It was long forbidden, and sometimes even dangerous, to read foreign newspapers and listen to the Voice of America or the BBC.

Chinese society is thoroughly organized, and that in a way that gives the Party the greatest possible power. All official information channels run vertically -- Reports from the bottom up, and decisions from the top down.

-The Communist Party banned horizontal contacts between people in different fields after taking power in 1949, Fang says. Physicists can talk to physicists, but physicists cannot talk to artists, and certainly not to business managers!

- For example, I know Liu Binyan, but we've only met a few times and I have never met Wang Ruowang (a well-known dissident from Shanghai), he says.

This corporatist system keeps the opposition fragmented into many small isolated islands, whom the party can crush, tolerate or manipulate if it so pleases. In a way, the party swallowed the society, but by doing so downed the political views it wanted to get rid of, even if they were in disguised form. Instead of being ideologically united, the party became a platform for factional strife and conflicts between interest groups.

Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic philosophy – "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” – was not much of an ideology, whether to defend the old system or build a new one. The already started reforms followed their own logic, and the very real divisions in the party made it increasingly inefficient as thought police.

-We had many meetings for professionals, and there we could get together and talk, says Fang. It took a lot of travel, because the telephone system is so inadequate.

It would not take long after the expulsion before new political winds blew. It seemed that nothing would be able to stop the gradual liberalization of China. In February 1986 Fang participated in a scientific conference led by Guan Weiyan. Fang was then authorized by Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang to attend a Physics symposium in May 1987 in Trieste, Italy. Once abroad, he took the opportunity to give an interview for the German magazine Der Spiegel, where he said that his goal for China was democratization, and that his next target was Marxism. In the autumn of 1988 he attended a scientific conference in Australia and gave an interview for the Hong Kong magazine "Nineties" on the way home. In it he delivered a scathing indictment of corruption and the "fin de siècle - the mentality" of the Communist Party. Deng Xiaoping was said to have become so enraged that he considered suing Fang for libel.

The struggle within the party leadership between radical reformers, cautious reformers and conservative opponents of reforms grew more intense during 1988, and by the second half of the year, it looked like the radicals had lost control of the Party, while the Party at the same time was losing its grip completely over the society, something that would become apparent in Spring of 1989.

It was in this situation that Fang wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping where he spoke about something that China's intellectuals had kept quiet about for ten years: Wei Jingsheng.

The short letter suggested that Deng should declare a national amnesty for political prisoners, including Wei. Fang thought it was fitting, given the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, the 70th anniversary of the "May Fourth Movement of 1919", and the 200thanniversary of the French Revolution.

The letter became the starting signal for the massive pro-democracy movement that would dominate the first half of 1989. And it was followed on February 16 by an open letter to the National People's Congress (China's "parliament") signed by 33 famous Chinese writers and artists and supporting Fang’s letter of January 6. And so did 42 famous Chinese scientists in yet another open letter to the NPC. Then came the events in quick succession.

Why did you write the letter in 1989?

-That was ten years since Wei Jingsheng had been sentenced, and even in Mao's time Communist Party's enemies were sometimes released after ten years. Freedom of expression was also quite large, but a difficulty was that Wei Jingsheng’s case was directly linked to Deng Xiaoping personally. It was a symbolic case. My aim was not to provoke. I thought that he should have been able to accept the letter. It would have been in Deng's interest to do it, says Fang with a frankness that has won him so many friends and such powerful enemies.

But Deng and the old guard behind China's shadow government are perhaps simply too old to listen to such talk. Hence, there is not much Fang and the 20.000 Chinese students in the U.S. can do, but to wait. Deng is after all 87 years old, and the next chapter in China's modernization could begin anytime now.

Hans Sandberg
(An abbreviated version of this article was published 
in March 1992 in Z Magazine in Stockholm, Sweden.)

More about Fang Lizhi

Hans Sandberg: Därför hatar Kinas makthavare Fang Lizhi

Wikipedia on Fang Lizhi

Perry Link: On Fang Lizhi (1936 - 2012)

James Fallows: Fang Lizhi

Orville Schell: China's Andrei Sakharov

The Economist: Fang Lizhi

James H. Williams: Fang's Expanding Universe

By Fang Lizhi:

The Real Deng (New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011)

My 'Confession' (New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011)

An Appeal to the ‘Fortune’ Conference in Shanghai (w. Robert L. Bernstein in New York Review of Books, September 23, 1999)

The Hope for China (w. Perry Link in New York Review of Books, October 17, 1996)

The Chinese Amnesia (New York Review of Books, September 27, 1990)

Keeping the Faith (New York Review of Books, December 21, 1989)

Letters from the Other China (w. Orville Schell in New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989)

China’s Despair and China’s Hope (New York Review of Books, February 2, 1989)

Scientific publications since 1989


Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992)

Creation of the Universe (w. T. Kiang and Li Shu Xian, World Scientific Publishing Company, 1993)

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