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The Most Wanted Man in China

A journey from scientist to enemy of the state

By Li-Zhi Fang Published 2016

Fang Lizhi at the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989

When Fang Lizhi, one of China’s most distinguished scientists, began in 1986 to talk to his students about the “universal rights” of human beings, he knew the risks. In those days, the use of the term “rights” in China was highly sensitive, even dangerous, and three years later, Fang would pay the price for his candor. He spent the last twenty-two years of his life in exile from China, but his ideas, on their home turf, were not so easy to stamp out: the concept of “rights” lived on, and it gradually became less perilous to mention the word. In 2003, a “defend rights” movement took root among Chinese lawyers and activists, and by the time of Fang’s death in 2012, factory workers, miners, petitioners, and even farmers in small villages had begun to conceive and pursue their interests as “rights.” The trend had grown beyond anything China’s rulers could reverse. It was a sea change and thus had many causes; no person did it single-handedly, or could have. But if we ask which person, among the many, did the most, the name Fang Lizhi must surely arise. 

A brilliant physicist, Fang was recruited out of college to work on Mao Zedong’s project to build an atomic bomb. Later he became one the youngest people ever appointed to China’s Academy of Sciences. When he began speaking out about human rights, he was already vice president of the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China. It was the highest position from which anyone in China had ever stepped out to be a “dissident.” … This book shows how, step by step, it was the axioms of science––skepticism, freedom of inquiry, respect for evidence, the equality of inquiring minds, and the universality of truth––that 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 during his youth.––From the foreword by Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, who translated Fang’s memoir

As of 1985 it was still not entirely safe to write about cosmology. In May of that year, I published an article in the Chinese journal Science in which I introduced quantum cosmology and referred in passing to the view that “the universe arose from nothing.” In November, when Hu Qiaomu circulated his proposal that I be removed from the Party, he simultaneously wrote a letter to the editors of Science stating that Fang Lizhi’s ideas on quantum cosmology were non-Marxist “subjective idealism” and advising that the editors publish an article “that took a different view from Fang Lizhi’s.” (In such contexts, “take a different view from” is a synonym for “denounce.”) Science of course thrives on criticism and denials—but it does not welcome political interference. I was a deputy editor of Science, and my fellow editors resisted Hu’s interference. What the incident did show, however, was that even as late as 1985, top ideologues in China felt entitled to rule with authority in the field of cosmology.

When I shared this story with some colleagues at Princeton, one of them, the possessor of a sly wit, suggested that this great teacher of ideology be invited to the 124th IAU symposium to speak on the topic “Cosmology Today.” It was a joke, of course. The great teacher fell well short of the minimum standard for symposium participation. The ABCs of the field were over his head. 

Cosmology as a field was hardly alone in this predicament. The problem illustrated a much broader paradox that was hampering China. Almost everyone was strongly in favor of “modernization,” seeing it as a goal that the country had been  pursuing for more than a century. But at the same time, a modernization phobia was loose in the land, especially in ruling circles. Any noun that followed the word “modern” was automatically suspect: modern cosmology was “objective idealism”; modern physics (quantum mechanics) was “subjective idealism”; modern art was emptiness and decadence; modern music was profligacy and spiritual pollution; modern Western countries were founts of bourgeois iniquity. Modern technology wasn’t so bad, and moreover, much of it had been invented in China long ago. The upshot of this line of thinking was that if you wanted modernization, Chinese tradition was the place to look for it.

So, as I saw things from Princeton, the project of getting modern science and civilization accepted in China still seemed urgent. I felt fortunate to have played a role in getting cosmology accepted. I reflected on the fact that three centuries earlier, five of my predecessors at the Beijing Observatory had been executed for attempting to use modern methods of astronomy to figure out calendars. Those pioneers had paid with their lives, and today we were luckier. Still, it was our job to keep diehards like Hu Qiaomu from messing up an IAU symposium.

The IAU meetings in Beijing went smoothly. The forms and procedures of these symposia are always the same, so I needn’t review them here. The high point in our case was a banquet, done to the standards of a state dinner, that was held on the evening of August 29 in the State Dinner Room of the Great Hall of the People, next to Tiananmen Square. The Chinese proverb “Money can make ghosts turn millstones” in recent times had acquired a new version: “Money can make the Communist Party turn millstones.” This was why we scientists, even though we didn’t have any state-level guests, could get state-banquet treatment. We had the money to buy it.

At the end of the banquet the astronomers—sated, slightly inebriated, and heady with the sense of being national-level guests—virtually floated out of the Great Hall and into Tiananmen Square. The gentle winds of the autumn evening may have magnified the inebriation, because Allan Sandage, a forty-year veteran in the field of cosmology, was led to make the immoderate pronouncement that “this meeting marks the true beginning of observational cosmology.” The next day Malcolm Longair, the distinguished British physicist, invoked Sandage’s words to open his summary remarks on the meetings, and the line later appeared prominently in the published symposium summary. It had become famous. It seemed to add a new item of glory to Tiananmen’s storied history: the great square was now the official birthplace of observational cosmology.


In his review of Fang Lizhi’s The Most Wanted Man in China (Henry Holt and Company, 2016) in the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences, writes:

For the last ten years of his life in China, Fang was often free to travel…. One of the places that he visited during this time was the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he spent the academic year 1985–86. I got to know him as a scientific colleague at the institute, and learned much from our conversations about the cosmological problems that he was studying.

During these conversations, he never mentioned the political struggles in China in which he was deeply engaged. I thought of him as a scientist, not as a famous political dissident. That was the way he wanted it. He says in his book that his primary purpose in life was always to do science, with politics as a sideline. He frequently encountered enthusiastic young people who wanted to be full-time political activists and came to him for advice. He always advised them to become professionally qualified in some nonpolitical line of work, so that their political activities would be independent of financial needs. He said emphatically that it was wrong to depend on political activity to pay for groceries. He practiced what he preached. Throughout his life, from his first days as a teaching  assistant in China to his last week as a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona, he taught students and gave lectures regularly. He knew that he was an outstanding teacher, and he took great pride in doing the job well. . . .

After he was exiled from China and before he settled permanently in Arizona, Fang came again to the Institute for Advanced Study for the academic year 1991–92. When he came for the second time, everyone knew that he was a famous political dissident, but he still talked mostly about science and not about politics….

Fang left behind a two-sided heritage, as a leading political dissident and as a leading scientific educator. He always considered his work as an educator to be the more important and more valuable contribution. History has proved him right. During his lifetime, he was more famous as a political dissident. He knew that his impact on the world as an educator would be more lasting and more transformative. As a political dissident, his heritage is to be a role model for a group of rebellious spirits, some of them exiles and others witnesses to the injustices of Chinese society. As a scientist and educator, his heritage is the rebirth of Chinese science as a full partner in the emerging world community of inquiring minds.—From “The Heritage of a Great Man” by Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books, May 26, 2016, www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/05/26/

Fang Lizhi, Director’s Visitor (1991) at the Institute, Member (1986) in the School of Natural Sciences, and Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona until his death in 2012,  received the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. This article is an excerpt of Fang’s memoir, which he began writing in October 1989 while he and his wife were in refuge at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to China after Party leaders blamed him for the Tiananmen Square protests. Excerpted from The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State by Fang Lizhi and translated by Perry Link, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. © 2016 by Shuxian Li. English translation © 2016 by Perry Link. All rights reserved.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2016