China’s prodemocrats lose a giant

Fang Lizhi, one of China’s best-known dissidents, has died. He passed away in the United States, where he had spent the last two decades of his life after being forced to flee China in the aftermath of the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy activists. The movement for a democratic China has lost a leading figure.

Fang was born in Hangzhou in 1936. He entered Beijing University, the country’s most prestigious school of advanced learning, at the age of 16 to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. Upon graduation four years later, he moved to the Institute of Modern Physics.

His love of pure science would brook no interference; he demonstrated an independent streak during his university years when he challenged the subordination of scientific principles to party dogma. That same inclination resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1957 for writing a paper that criticized political interference in scientific research.

Fortunately for Fang, he was too valuable to China’s future to be sidelined for his beliefs — at least until the Cultural Revolution. That national upheaval claimed him among its victims. He was imprisoned and then sent to Anhui Province to work with peasants, on farms and in a coal mine.

Yet even that tempest could not temper his views. In 1972, he (along with some colleagues) published a paper that argued in favor of the Big Bang Theory.

Today, “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation” would be considered a mainstream (if not leading edge) work. Then, however, it was heresy — a direct contradiction of Friedrich Engels (one of the founders of Marxism), who insisted that the universe is infinite in time and space.

Fang was rehabilitated in 1976 after Mao’s death and he quickly returned to the scientific limelight. He joined the international lecture circuit as China tried to catch up from the decade of tumult imposed by the Cultural Revolution.

At the age of 44, he was elected to the Chinese Academy of Science, and in 1984 he was appointed vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China, where he had taught since 1958.

Fang always had an independent streak, but his international exposure surely advanced his political inclinations. During the 1980s, he exploited the gradual opening of political and economic space to criticize the Communist Party and push for democratic reform. By 1987, he was considered a leading figure in the country’s prodemocracy movement.

Once again, though, he would pay for his convictions. After helping to organize prodemocracy demonstrations across the country, he was expelled from the party again and stripped of his job in 1987. Yet even that did not silence him.

Less than two years later, he wrote an open letter to supreme leader Deng Xiaoping calling for the release of prodemocracy activists. That launched the tide of popular support for reform that culminated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989 — and the subsequent bloody crackdown.

After the military assault, arrest warrants were issued for Fang and his wife: A conviction on the charges could have led to the death penalty for them. That spurred them to flee to the U.S. embassy and to seek asylum. The U.S. president at the time, George Bush, agreed to grant them asylum, but the Chinese authorities would not let them out of the country.

As a result, they lived in the embassy for 13 months. All the while, diplomats negotiated on a formula to win their release. After a year — and marked deterioration in U.S.-China relations — the Chinese government agreed to let them leave for medical reasons. Fang then moved to the University of Arizona, Tucson, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

While Fang may have physically left his home country, his heart remained in China. He continued to comment on the repression of democracy, noting that the latest campaign to crack down on dissidents “should be a wakeup call to anyone who naively believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer.”

More than any other dissident, Fang scared the Chinese leadership. He provoked a deep fear not only because he spoke to students and they listened, but also because his knowledge and conclusions reflected a deep understanding of the monumental forces that move and shape the universe, whether they be the forces of nature or social and human tides.

Just as Fang saw patterns and pulls when he explored the fabric of the cosmos, he recognized that human beings were subject to equally immutable social forces.

His certainty about the rightness of his conclusions — that universal human rights were indeed the rights of all citizens everywhere — was rooted in a scientific rigor that was no less compelling than when he wrote out equations on a blackboard.

Fang Lizhi was a towering figure in both science and human rights, an inspiration to the Chinese people who rose in 1989 and whose revival still troubles the leadership in Beijing.

As exiled dissident Wang Dan noted at Fang’s death, “one day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi.” Today, however, the Chinese media remain silent.