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When Science and Politics Mix: Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Fang Lizhi, astrophysicist, political dissident

Fang Lizhi, from his University of Arizona web page

I was saddened to learn from The New York Times this past weekend that astrophysicist and human-rights advocate Fang Lizhi had died at age 76. I met Fang in 1994, a few years after he fled China with help from the U.S. Department of State. Communist party leaders had accused him of helping to instigate the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which ended in bloodshed on June 4, 1989. The protests and the crackdown were the final straws that led to exile for Fang, a longtime advocate of democracy and intellectual freedom.

It might be easy to dismiss Fang’s trials and tribulations as unique in time and place. But, like those of many other oppressed individuals, his story holds universal lessons—the most notable being that politics should not interfere with science.

What follows is a short summary with sections cribbed from my actual profile of him, which appeared in the May 1994 issue of Scientific American (pdf for purchase; no html version available yet).

Since assuming power after World War II, China’s communist government has engaged in a kind of love-hate relationship with intellectuals. The Communist Party officials recognize the need for scientists to modernize the country. But the habit of intellectual independence in scientists seems to threaten the party leadership. For years, they have alternately cultivated and suppressed the intelligentsia. The first swing began one year after Fang, who developed his passion for science in his middle school years after building a radio, graduated from Beijing University with a degree in physics. In 1957 Mao Zedong invited intellectuals to air their thoughts on reform. As the chairman had predicted, many flowers did indeed bloom, among them Fang, who argued that the educational system needed to be changed so that politics would not interfere with science. Stunned by the extent of the criticism from the intellectuals, Mao abruptly launched the anti-rightist campaign, designed to bring the detractors back in line. Unwilling to recant, Fang was expelled from the party and forced to work in a labor camp for eight months.

Fang would need a second bout of “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao ordered the reformation of anyone and the extirpation of anything remotely considered to be bourgeois. Fang toiled in a coal mine and on a railroad for several months.

The forced labor did have one positive outcome: it turned his mind to astrophysics.

“During the Cultural Revolution, you were forbidden to read any books, except for Mao’s small red book,” Fang states. He did, however, manage to smuggle along a copy of Classical Theory of Fields, by the Russian physicist Lev Landau. “At that time, I had no other book, so I read it several times.” The second half of the book, devoted to general relativity, inspired Fang to tackle cosmology.

Fang went to write several papers in astrophysics and land a university position in Beijing. He also began his rise to political prominence. “I think my contribution to the Chinese democracy movement is the speeches I gave during the 1980s,” he said. “The ideas in those speeches were very common, very basic ideas of human rights.”

Tiananmen Square, however, ultimately led Fang and his family to seek safe haven in the U.S. Embassy, where they remained as the Chinese government and the U.S. State Department looked for a face-saving means to free Fang.

Fang described his stay as an embassy guest this way:

“That was a difficult time. But I was still productive. I published several scientific papers.” Fang digs up an article he wrote on the distribution of redshifts of quasars. “This was totally done in the embassy.” The affiliation lists the University of Rome. “This address is not the real address,” Fang explains. “I wanted to put in ‘U.S. Embassy in Beijing,’ but the State Department people didn’t like that.”
The opportunity to leave the embassy came a year later, when Fang complained of minor heart palpitations he attributes to excessive coffee drinking. U.S. officials exaggerated the magnitude of the condition, leaking a story that Fang had suffered a heart attack.

Fang left his homeland and took a position at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he taught and continued to speak about human rights. As I recall, he seemed hopeful that one day he would return to China but realistic in that he might never. “If you study anything, you must raise questions,” Fang said to me. “But authorities in communist countries do not like you to raise questions.” His outspokenness and political dissidence, it seems, were direct outgrowths of who he really is, deep down: a scientist.

Philip Yam About the Author: Philip Yam is the managing editor of ScientificAmerican.com. Follow on Twitter @philipyam.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. geojellyroll 10:40 pm 04/9/2012

    Please Scientific American. Keep ALL politics out of science…. both the politics we agree with and the politics we don’t.

    Link to this
  2. 2. string_beery 5:17 pm 04/10/2012

    RIP Fang Lizhi. Your dedication to truth has moved China just that much closer to democracy.

    Please SciAm keep posting excellent articles like this.

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  3. 3. calvinchiu 9:21 pm 04/13/2012

    I welcome any essay relating to prominent scientist no matter his political background is. SciAm please don’t let politics as an excuse to deprive our chance to appreciate science elites and their stories.

    Link to this

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