Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They did so because they feared for their lives. With a warrant out for their arrests accusing them of “counterrevolutionary instigation,” they have now spent six solitary months as refugees within their own country. They have become symbols both of China’s crushed democracy movement, and of the deteriorated state of Sino–US relations. In fact, so agitated has the Chinese government become over Fang, that it is highly unlikely that relations between the two countries will be able to return even to a semblance of normalcy unless Fang and his wife are released. But with hard-line leaders in China continuing to claim that by sheltering Fang and Li the US has been interfering in their country’s “internal affairs,” and that “he who ties the knot must untie it,” Fang and his wife do not seem likely to be liberated soon.

In recognition of Fang’s contribution to the cause of human rights and freedom of expression in China, on November 15 he was presented in absentia with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award in a televised Washington, DC, ceremony, at which Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa gave the keynote address. The following is a translation of Fang’s acceptance speech.

Orville Schell

I am proud and deeply moved to have this opportunity to speak with you here today; but at the same time, I am also filled with a sense of sorrow and shame. I am moved because you have chosen to honor me with the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and because it attests to the fact that I have not been, and am not now, alone. But I am filled with sorrow to see that in this land of my birth human dignity has once again been trampled upon. What is more, having had my own basic human rights stripped away, I am now more acutely aware than ever how far we are from accomplishing what we must in the cause of advancing respect for all human beings.

David Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Fang Lizhi, 1989

The values underlying human dignity are common to all people. They are comprised of universally applicable standards of human rights that hold no regard for race, language, religion, or other beliefs. Symbolized by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, these universal principles have increasingly earned the acceptance and respect of the world at large. When a commemorative gathering was held last November in Beijing to honor the fortieth anniversary of the Declaration, many of us were delighted, because it seemed to us at the time that the principles of human rights were also finally starting to take root in our ancient land.

However, time after time such fond dreams have been shattered by a harsh reality. In the face of the bloody tragedy of last June, we now must admit to having been far too optimistic. Some of those officials who were responsible for this repression have recently attempted to defend their behavior by declaring that “China has its own standard of human rights,” and have completely rejected the world’s censure by refusing to acknowledge the universal nature of human rights. They appear to think that by simply labeling something a “household affair,” they can ignore the laws of human decency and do as they please. But this is the worst kind of feudalistic rationalization. During the long period when China was isolated from the rest of the world, an ideology of purporting to be “master of all under heaven” may have been an effective means of controlling the country. But in the latter part of the twentieth century such declarations about “household affairs” only serve to expose those who make them as the feudal dictators they are. Moreover, such statements have lost their capacity to either intimidate or deceive people.

Nowadays, a growing number of Chinese believe that for China to catch up with the modern world, we must change our society by absorbing those aspects of more modern civilizations, especially science and democracy, that have proven both progressive and universal. From the Movement for Science and Democracy of 1919 to the rising tide of demand for intellectual freedom in 1957, and from the protest marches of 1926 that were confronted by swords and guns to the demonstrations of 1989 that were confronted by tanks, we can see how passionately the Chinese people have wanted a just, rational, and prosperous society. Although China has some very deep-seated problems that have caused it to lag behind developed countries, our history shows that the Chinese have long sought the same kind of progress and development as people everywhere, regardless of their race or nationality, and that when it comes to such common aspirations, Chinese are no different from any other people. Like all other members of the human race, Chinese are born with a body and a brain, with passions and a soul, and they ought to be able to enjoy the same inalienable rights, dignity, and liberty as other human beings.

Allow me to draw a historical analogy. Recent propaganda to the effect that “China has its own standard of human rights” bears an uncanny resemblance to pronouncements made by our eighteenth-century rulers when they declared that “China has its own astronomy.” The feudal aristocracy of two hundred years ago opposed the notion of an astronomy based on science, and refused to acknowledge the universal applicability of modern astronomy, even that it might be of some use in formulating the Chinese calendar. The reason they opposed modern astronomy was that its laws, which pertain everywhere, made it apparent that the “divine right of rule” claimed by these people was a fiction. By the same token, the principles of human rights, which are also universal, make it clear that the “right to rule” claimed by their successors today is just as baseless. This is why in every era rulers buoyed up by special privilege have opposed the idea of equality that is inherent in such universal ideas.

The advance of civilization has largely followed from the discovery and development of just such universally applicable concepts and laws. Those who rejected the idea that science had universal application were, in fact, doing nothing more than demonstrating their fear of modern culture. The feudal aristocrats of two centuries past saw astronomy as a bearer of this modern culture, and, as a result, ruthlessly persecuted those who engaged in its study and practice. Indeed, in one instance of such oppression during the early Qing Dynasty, five astronomers from the Beijing Observatory were even put to death. But, far from demonstrating might, such brutality only demonstrated fear. Equally terrified by the implications of universal human rights, modern-day dictators may also resort to murder. But no more than we do in the case of their predecessors should we construe their actions as an indication of strength.

Some people say that the terror that has filled Beijing since June cannot but help make one pessimistic. And I must admit to such feelings myself. But I would also like to offer up a small bit of encouragement. Remember that in this current climate of terror, it may well be that it is those who have just killed their fellow human beings who are the most terrified. We may be forced to live in terror today, but we have no fear of tomorrow, whereas the murderers are not only fearful of the present, but are even more terrified of the future. Thus we actually have no reason to lose faith. Ignorance may dominate in the short run through the use of violence, but just as surely as the earth turns it will eventually be unable to resist the advance of universal laws.

Of course, it takes time for the earth to turn, and for China things may take some time to right themselves. With this in mind, I would like to say a few things to the young Chinese in the audience. I know that many of you have dedicated your lives to building our country anew. Since the road to rebirth will be a long one, I fervently hope that you will not break off your educations, but, instead, will work harder than ever to deepen and enrich your knowledge.

We are all disciples of nonviolence. And what power can nonviolence summon up by way of resistance against the armed violence of the world? Although there are many kinds of nonviolence, perhaps most basic is knowledge. Without knowledge, nonviolence can only degenerate into pleading for mercy, and history is unmoved by such pleading. It is only when we stand on the shoulders of the giant that is knowledge that we will change the course of history; only through knowledge will we be able to overcome the violence of ignorance at its very roots; and only through knowledge will we succeed in finding the compassion necessary to deliver those with superstitious faith in the omnipotence of violence from their folly. As Ibsen said, “If you want to be of value to society, there is no better way than to forge yourself into a vessel for its use.” I hope that all of us will strive to forge ourselves into just such vessels.

Many friends have expressed great concern about our current situation, and I want to take this opportunity to thank both those of you whom we already know, and those of you whom we have not yet met, from the bottom of my heart. Because of the extraordinary circumstances under which we now live, I am unable to tell you any of the details of our daily lives. But there is one bit of news that may lighten your hearts somewhat. I am doing my best to exercise to the fullest extent possible two of my remaining human rights, namely the right to think and the right to inquire. I am continuing my research in astrophysics. In fact, since June of this year, I have written two research papers and am even now in the middle of a third.

In my field of modern cosmology, the first principle is called the “Cosmological Principle.” It says that the universe has no center, that it has the same properties throughout. Every place in the universe has, in this sense, equal rights. How can the human race that has evolved in a universe of such fundamental equality, fail to strive for a society without violence and terror? And how can we not seek to try to build a world in which the rights due every human being from birth are respected?

May the blessings of the universe be upon us. My thanks to all of you.

translated by James H. Williams and Orville Schell

Fang Lizhi (1936-2012) was an astrophysicist and political dissident. Early on, the Chinese Communist Party considered him a valuable asset because of his scientific training and therefore allowed...

This article was first published in the December 21, 1989 issue of The New York Review of Books.



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