‘Hi! I’m Fang!’ The Man Who Changed China

Remembering Fang Lizhi

In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, a grassroots movement called weiquan (“supporting rights”) has spread widely, and it seems clear that China’s rulers are helpless to reverse it. Even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago this week. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.

(AFP/Getty Images)
This photo, taken from a television airing China's State TV on June 12, 1989, shows the arrest warrant for Chinese scientist and dissident Fang Lizhi, being shown on television and at all immigration exit points to prevent his escape after Fang had taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy on June 5.

1. In the fall of 1988, when I was working in Beijing for the scholarly exchange office of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, my friend Orville Schell asked if I would like to meet Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian. Fang had been expelled from the Communist Party a year earlier, and I had admired his trenchant speeches on human rights and democracy; of course I wanted to meet him. With Orville as intermediary, we all accepted an invitation to dinner on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival, at the classic old-style courtyard home in Beijing of Zhang Hanzhi (a former English tutor of Mao Zedong and widow of Qiao Guanhua, who had served as foreign minister for Mao from 1974-1976). About eight people sat around an outdoor table. What struck me about Fang was how quiet he was. He seldom spoke—although it was clear that he was listening because he occasionally burst out in joyous laughter. I knew that Fang had been a high-ranking academic official and perhaps I was expecting someone who spoke with a bit of guanqiang (“official flavor”) or other stylized self-presentation. Not Fang. “Hi! I’m Fang!” That was it.

2. On February 26, 1989, George H. W. Bush, on his first visit to China after his election as president, invited a large number of Chinese and Americans to a Texas-style barbecue at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. Fang and I and our spouses were among the invitees, and we shared a car to the event. A few hundred yards before reaching the hotel, a swarm of police surrounded the car, talked with the driver about his “speeding,” and, after we had all exited the car and begun to walk toward the hotel, pulled Fang and his wife aside to tell them that, despite the printed invitation they held in their hands, they were “not on the invitation list.”(We did not know it at the time, but that same afternoon, Deng Xiaoping had made it clear Fang should be prevented from attending.)  

Showing little sign of upset, Fang proposed that we take a taxi to the U.S. Embassy to confirm the invitation. Before our taxi had moved eight blocks, it was stopped by another swarm of police, this time for a “defective tail light.” Undeterred, Fang proposed that we wait at a public bus stop to catch a bus to the embassy. As a bus approached, about 100 yards before it reached the stop we could see someone flag it down and say something to the driver. The bus then went by without stopping. About thirty others were waiting at the stop, and they shouted. Some cursed. We waited for a second bus, and the same thing happened.

Finally, Fang looked at me and said, “We are the problem here. We have to leave. It isn’t fair to these laobaixing (“ordinary folk”). It’s the end of the day and they’re trying to go home.” So we left the bus stop and headed for the embassy on foot. Here we were at the focal point of a drama that involved a U.S. president and China’s top leader. Police were swarming and odd events kept occurring. A few hours later the incident was in headlines around the world. But Fang? He was worried that laobaixing couldn’t catch a bus.

3. About two hours later, on that same night of February 26, 1989, we had walked to the gate of the U.S. ambassador’s residence at 17 Guanghua Road in Beijing. Several police were there, and they told us “no one is inside.” We gave up on attending the banquet, but we still needed to get home. By chance, we met a Canadian diplomat named David Horley and his wife, who were out for an evening walk in the diplomatic quarter. The Horleys well knew who Fang Lizhi was, and they invited us to their apartment to offer a snack, a couch, and use of a telephone. At the gate of the Horleys’ apartment building, a policeman demanded to know the identity of the Chinese visitors. Horley began explaining his rights as a diplomat to invite into his residence anyone of his choosing, but the niceties of international law plainly were floating over the head of the Chinese policeman. Fang took another tack. He took out his Chinese ID card from his pocket, stepped forward right in front of the policemen, held the card in two hands in front of his chest, about four inches beneath his chin, and said in a sharp, clear voice: “Fang … Li … Zhi!”

This was surprising. I think it surprised even the policeman, who let us in without further questions.

4. In May, 1989, while student demonstrators were in the streets of Beijing calling for democracy, I listened as a Western journalist interviewed Fang. At the end, the interviewer asked if there were a way he could pursue follow-up questions if necessary. Fang said “sure,” and gave the reporter his telephone number.

“We’ve heard that your phone is tapped,” the reporter said. “Is it?”

“I assume so.” Fang grinned.

“Doesn’t that … bother you?” the reporter asked.

“No,” said Fang, “for years I’ve been trying to get them to listen to me. If this is how they want to do it, then fine!”

5. On the morning of the horrific June 4 massacre, 1989, I rode my bicycle to the homes of several Chinese friends in Beijing. I wanted to hear what they had to say, and I wanted to offer help if they thought I could be of use. At Fang’s apartment his wife answered the door. She was trembling with rage.“They’re mad!They’ve really gone mad!” she kept repeating in a hoarse whisper. Fang, sitting at his desk, maintained equanimity, but it seemed it was a struggle for him too. Friends had been telephoning, urging Fang and Li to flee, because word was already out that the they were already numbers one and two on the government’s list of people responsible for the “counterrevolutionary rebellion.” But Fang said, “This is my home. I have done nothing wrong. Why should I leave?”

Several hours later, after further urging from friends, the two did leave, but those surprising words have stuck in my mind. In a situation where fear, anger, or confusion would have overwhelmed most people, Fang clung to first principles: I have a right to stay in my home.

6. Late at night on June 6, 1989, American diplomats invited Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian, who were still in acute danger, to take temporary refuge in the U.S. Embassy. They remained there for more than a year. In the fall of 1988, I had introduced Fang to Robert Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books who then published an article by him in early 1989. During Fang and his wife’s stay at the embassy, Silvers invited Fang to write another essay and asked me to translate it. When the essay reached my hands, I was surprised at his argument. He wrote that the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth massacre would soon be forgotten in China. How could this be? The shocking events had been broadcast to the entire world and the reverberations were still fresh. Soon forgotten?

But Fang observed that demands for liberalization had risen in the 1956 Hundred Flowers movement, in the 1979 Democracy Wall movement, and again in 1989—and each time the protesters began anew. No group knew the history of protest in its own country or about the progress that predecessors had made. This was, Fang argued, because the Communist Party of China has a program for erasing the memory of protest, and it works. They were now applying it again, and it would likely work again.  Indeed, many young Chinese today have only vague notions that something happened in 1989, and what they do “know” is a highly distorted government-sponsored version of events. Fang was right.

7. In 1992 Fang accepted a position as professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona, and Fang and Li Shuxian settled in Tucson. On October 25, 2007, their younger son, Fang Zhe, was killed at a highway intersection when an elderly driver ignored a stop sign. Thriving and handsome one moment, gone the next. A vivid image of Fang Lizhi at his son’s memorial service is burned into my memory. Li Shuxian was seated, weeping. Friends and relatives were seated, weeping. I was seated, weeping. But Fang Lizhi, host of the event, stood at the front of the room—straight, silent, aware. Can there be anything more painful for a human being than the death of one’s child? But there he was, tall, unbent.

8. Less than a year before he died, I wrote Fang urging him to write more essays, because he had literary flair. In response he sent me an essay about a boyhood prank. In the 1940s, he lived in the neighborhood of a famous opera singer named Cheng Yanqiu. He and some mischievous friends had the bright idea of prying some gooey tar from the roadway and inserting it into the casing of Mr. Cheng’s doorbell button so that, once pushed, the button would stick and the bell would not stop ringing.Then they retreated to hide and watch the fun when someone pushed the button.

What struck me in reading this essay was that a boy had pulled that prank, but a seventy-five-year old had sent me the essay—and the two Fangs in essence were the same. In traditional Chinese literati culture, tongxin  (“a childlike heart”) is a virtue that one works to preserve. Fang had such a heart, and did not even have to work hard to maintain it.