The Astrophysicist of Tiananmen

In a China that was slowly, gradually opening up, Fang Lizhi's teaching had strayed from quantum cosmology and dark matter into more exotic territories like democracy and human rights.

Jun 5 2014, 11:30am

In January 1987, when the government of Deng Xiaoping began using the slogan “modernization with Chinese characteristics”—by which he meant, modernization under the one-party state—Fang Lizhi, one of the country's most prominent astrophysicists, was incredulous. In a lecture, he asked his students if they believed in physics with Chinese characteristics.

For years, in a China that was slowly, gradually opening up, Fang's teaching had strayed from quantum cosmology and dark matter into more exotic territories like democracy and human rights. The comment about Chinese physics was the last straw: for this and other speeches, he was expelled from his job as president of the University of Science and Technology of China and stripped of his Party membership.

Fang Lizhi speaking to students in May 1989.

The government soon spread his writings across Chinese campuses as an example of “bourgeois liberalism” that students should avoid. But the effort backfired. In early 1989, an open letter he wrote to Deng calling for the release of political prisoners helped galvanize the pro-democracy student movement in cities across China that spring.

When Fang died in 2012, Wang Dan, who was imprisoned for four years for his leadership role in the Tiananmen protests, Tweeted that the astrophysicist "has inspired the ’89 generation and has awakened the people’s yearning for human rights and democracy.”

The discord between science and ideology had already been made clear to Fang during his persecution under Mao's Cultural Revolution. (It was in a reeducation camp at a coal mine in southern Anhui province that led him to specialize in theoretical astrophysics, which he told an interviewer, was “the only field of physics I could pursue without equipment.”)

Then, in 1972, a paper of his, “A solution of the cosmological equations in scalar-tensor theory, with mass and blackbody radiation," was condemned as “capitalist metaphysics.” Theories of a finite universe were not accepted under communist thought, he was informed, as Engels had declared that the universe had always existed, and was infinite in space and time. 

Fang’s reply: “not necessarily.”

After Mao's death in 1976, Fang would be rehabilitated and welcomed back into the party. He began traveling abroad for astrophysics conferences and fellowships. "These trips abroad were to influence deeply the way that Fang looked at the Chinese socialist system and the role of intellectuals within it," Orville Schell wrote in the Atlantic in 1988. "Never overriding his thoughts and feelings with the usual subtle (and frequently unconscious) genuflections to the official political line of the moment, Fang spoke so openly about what he was thinking and what he believed that one had to suppress the urge to warn him of the dangers of such candor."

In 1996, in the New York Review of Books, Fang described five central scientific axioms that had led him to think carefully and passionately about human rights.

  1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs.
  2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others.
  3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth.
  4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information.
  5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border. 

At the height of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations—a time and place where time seemed to both slow and speed up—Fang didn't travel to the center of Beijing to address the sea of students who adored him. He said he wanted to make it clear to the authorities that the students were acting without his guidance.

The decision was a scientific one, but the demonstrations and the massacre that occured would defy science and its typical standards of observation. Afterwards, Fang suspected that the sheer torrent of documentation of the events at Tiananmen would cause a failure of the Party's ‘Technique of Forgetting History.’” But Fang was overly optimistic. Even now, on the 25th anniversary, the history remains largely forgotten in China. 

That Orwellian concealment allows for the history makers to paint Tiananmen as an insignificant if unfortunate chapter in China's rise, necessary to steering the country into an orderly future. But a growing pile of evidence, much of it surfaced in a new book by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, gives the picture a far higher resolution. More than ever, the massacre looks like a grand mistake, an act of desperation that was preceded by thorough discord not only among officials but generals and soliders too

But Lim points out, as professor Fang might have, that evidence doesn't mean as much if you're not interested in looking for it to begin with. And college students in China today aren't interested in looking through the historical telescope. “While the Internet clearly has a huge impact breaking down the government’s monopoly over information," she said recently, "if there is no appetite for information about politics and the past, then there isn’t even much of a need for censorship.” 

Liu Wei, 忘却的一天 or “A Day Forgotten,” 2005

Shortly after the massacre at the square, Fang and his family escaped military reprisals by taking refuge at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. That launched a year-long diplomatic tension between China and the government of George Bush, a tension that ended after secret negotiations, which sent Fang and family to the U.S., ostensibly for medical treatment. The warrant for his arrest, "for the crime of counterrevolutionary incitement," was never dropped.

Even after leaving China, Fang fervently argued for human rights. He even upbraided his new hosts after he arrived, accusing the the United States of holding China to a lower human rights standard than it applied to the Soviet Union in its approach to dissidents. (President Bush called Fang’s views mistaken and outdated.) Fang became a professor at the University of Arizona, where he continued to ask questions about big bangs and black holes and other mysteries that continue to swirl around those days in Beijing. 

In December of 1986, Fang described his idea of the special role that he believed scientists and intellectuals would play in China's progress. "Almost invariably, it has been the natural scientists who have been the first to become conscious of the emergence of each social crisis," he said. Paraphrasing Einstein, he added, "Scientists must express their feelings about all aspects of society, especially when unreasonable, wrong, or evil things emerge. If they do otherwise, they will be considered accomplices."