The Most Wanted Man in China

On June 6, 1989, the physicist Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the invitation of President George H.W. Bush, who told Fang, then being hunted by the Communist Party, that he could stay as long as necessary. Two days earlier, troops from the People’s Liberation Army had crushed the democracy protests in central Beijing and other cities that had riveted China—and the world. Fang did not participate directly in the Tiananmen Square protests, but his campus talks and writings on democracy during the 1980s had made him a hero to the students and an archenemy of the authorities. He and his wife, Li Shuxian, also a physicist, were No.1 and No. 2 on an arrest list after the massacre.

Fang and his wife stayed at the embassy for 13 months. During that time he wrote “The Most Wanted Man in China,” a thoughtful, funny and still relevant memoir that recalls those tense days and the years leading up to them, during which Fang openly challenged China’s Communist Party in a battle of ideas.

Born in Beijing in 1936 to a father who worked for the Ministry of Railways and a well-educated, politically active mother, Fang went on to study physics at Beijing University. From there he joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Modern Physics, where he studied nuclear reactors.

Fang has been called the “Chinese Sakharov” and not only because of his brilliance. “For Fang as for [Andrei] Sakharov,” as Perry Link, a scholar of Chinese language and dissent, writes in the book’s foreword, “rights were implied by science.” Its axioms of “skepticism, freedom of inquiry, respect for evidence, the equality of inquiring minds, and the universality of truth . . . led Fang toward human rights and to reject dogma of every kind, including, eventually, the dogma of the Chinese communism that he had idealistically embraced.”

The Party helped. Like other intellectuals, Fang was repeatedly sent to the countryside for political “re-education” through manual labor. There he confronted the “empty abstraction” of the dictatorship of the proletariat. “Whoever did the dictating would be, you could be sure, no proletarian.” Working in a mining camp in a barren area of southern Anhui Province was a revelation, intellectually as well as emotionally. By night Fang secretly read the only book available, a volume on cosmology, while by day he contended with the hell of the Communist Party’s making. “Not until I reached the bottom of the mineshaft . . . did I suddenly feel the urge to reach as far as I could in the opposite direction.” The mining camp, “with its 102-degree temperatures, its mosquitoes and malaria . . . its suicides, its dead bodies and wild dogs—no matter how squalid, ugly and tyrannical—could not touch the beauty that arose from my wonder and awe at the colossal thing called the universe. That beauty now owned me.”

After the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping wanted intellectuals to help the country advance in science and technology. Fang ambivalently accepted political rehabilitation and an appointment to a top post at a leading university. But he saw contradictions in Deng’s “reform” agenda, which maintained the supremacy of the Party and rejected independent thought. Actual reform, Fang observed, was “pushed by the populace below much more than being led by the Communist Party from above.”

The relatively relaxed conditions of the 1980s enabled Fang to travel abroad for the first time. A short visit to East Berlin confirmed that “the socialism invented by Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong . . . could not save China. Forget it.” Back in China, in speeches on campuses and in essays, Fang endorsed learning from the West and freedom of speech and the press. “My innovation was only to say that on-paper rights should be actual rights,” which led Deng to blame Fang for “taking advantage of our constitution.” Intent on blunting Fang’s popularity, the Party circulated his writings, hoping to stoke more ideological attacks on him. The move backfired: Fang’s banned writings became hot items on the black market.

Fang’s account of his final collision with the regime is suspenseful even now. He writes with a wry humor that belies the danger he faced, and he displays a disarming modesty about his achievements—and empathy for his colleagues, many of whom suffered much more than he.

On June 25, 1990, Fang left the embassy and China, more on his terms than the Party’s. He refused to make a “confession,” acknowledging instead his opposition to the Party and vowing never to betray China—resisting the conflation of the two. He allowed the authorities to save face by agreeing to stop over on a “small isolated island”—he chose Great Britain—rather than go directly to the U.S. Fang then took a position at the University of Arizona. (Fang died in 2012 in Tucson. The manuscript of his memoir was given to Mr. Link by Fang’s family after his death.)

The Tiananmen crackdown was a turning point in Chinese history. Since then, the Party has pre-empted, shut down, harassed and arrested everything it regards as a threat—from human-rights lawyers to signers of Charter 08, the democracy manifesto. Although Fang’s name is banned in the country, according to Mr. Link, “popular awareness of the notion of ‘rights’ in China today has come as much from Fang Lizhi as from any other person one might name.”

Fang predicted correctly that Tiananmen would be forgotten inside China, lamenting that each new generation of Chinese democrats starts afresh, largely unaware of what has gone before. But start afresh they do. A democratic China in which its citizens are free to delve into their past will one day acknowledge its debt to Fang Lizhi.

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