Mourning the death of Fang Lizhi

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(CHRD April 10, 2012) In grief, we mourn the death of Fang Lizhi, 76, a renowned dissident, a leading voice of political liberalization in China in the 1980s, whose public speeches and essays had inspired the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. Prof. Fang, a founder of modern astrophysics and cosmology in China, a highly regarded astrophysicist, and a founding Board member of CHRD, died in Tuscon, Arizona on April 6, 2012.


Prof. Fang went into the US Embassy in June 1989, left for the UK (then US) a year later with his wife Li Shuxian in the wake of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre, when hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were killed and thousands arrested throughout China. The Chinese government had issued arrest warrants for Prof. Fang and his wife, denouncing him an “instigator of chaos which resulted in the deaths of many people.”


In the late 1950s, due to his criticism of the CCP for restricting intellectual freedom, Fang was dismissed from his work developing China’s nuclear power.  As part of the anti- “rightist” purge, he was banished to rural China. During the Cultural Revolution, he was made to work in a coal mine.


Prof. Fang was later allowed to work at the Chinese University of Science and Technology as a physics professor and he became the vice president of the university in the early 1984. His bold speeches on university campuses in the relatively-open 1980s urged the government to pursue political reforms. His liberal ideas influenced students across the country and in January 1987 he helped organize pro-reform student demonstrations in several cities. Soon after, the Chinese government fired him from the university, reassigned him to a research job at the Beijing Observatory, and purged him from the Communist Party. Despite authorities’ attempt to silence him, he remained a leading voice among dissident intellectuals in the few years leading up to 1989.


Prof. Fang said in a 1988 speech at a Beijing democracy salon that “There is no such a thing as modernization with Chinese characteristics [i.e., without democratization], just as there is no physics with Chinese characteristics.” In January 1989, he wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, which was followed by a statement of support by 33 other prominent scientists, calling for the release of China’s then-most famous political prisoner ,Wei Jingsheng. In March 1989, he made another widely circulated speech arguing that human rights should be at the core of a future democratic China. As the 1989 student leader Wang Dan, who was jailed for four years for his role in the Tiananmen protests, put it, “Fang Lizhi has inspired the ’89 generation and has awakened the people’s yearning for human rights and democracy.”


Prof. Fang was true to his creed that “democracy is built from the bottom up,” as he told students at Tongji University in Shanghai in 1986. In the 21 plus years since he was forced into exile, Prof. Fang devoted himself to supporting human rights and democratization around the world, especially the efforts to build democracy and human rights in China from the bottom up. He served on the board of various human rights organizations, including the International League for Human Rights, Committee of Concerned Scientists, the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, and other human rights groups with a focus on China. Prof. Fang stood firm with those who supported that major resources of overseas Chinese human rights NGOs should be devoted to supporting vulnerable Chinese activists inside the country as space and visible activism had emerged in the early 2000. Prof. Fang was a founding Board member of CHRD, responsible for crafting its vision and philosophy, and he has since been a steadfast supporter of its mission and approach.


Prof. Fang won numerous awards for both his scientific and human rights work, including the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the 1991 Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee. He earned the reputation as “China’s Andrei Sakharov.”  In 2010, he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society in recognition of his scientific contributions as well as protecting the freedom of scientists around the world.


Prof. Fang is dearly missed by all of us who have had the fortune of knowing him and working with him. He will continue to inspire us with the treasure he left us — his penchant for questioning authorities, his clear vision, cool composure, and sharp analysis guiding us in solving any complex problems, his unflappable sense of humor, and his writings, which are jewels in Chinese literary artistry and much more. Prof. Fang left his mark in the history of humanity’s pursuit of freedom and knowledge, yet his sudden departure is a great loss to those whose cause he had championed.


Since 1990, Prof. Fang remained on the forefront of nuclear physics, laser physics, theoretical astrophysics, and cosmology. After visiting Cambridge University and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and eventually took up teaching and research in the physics department at University of Arizona at Tuscon. According to that university, Prof. Fang led cooperative projects on astrophysics with colleagues in China with his name usually redacted. He cared deeply about making scientific knowledge accessible not only to the academic community but society at large. He published more than 340 research papers and numerous popular articles and books, including a broadly read Chinese book on cosmology.


He was a member of the Chinese Academy of Science before being forced into exile. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Founding Fellow of the Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy.


Among his science awards are also the Chinese National Award of Science and Technology in 1978, the First Award of the Gravity Research Foundation (1985), and the 1996 Nicholson Medal of the American Physical Society.


Fang served on many scientific committees, including the council of the International Center for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, and as chair of the Commission C19 of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and chair of the steering committee of the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Network.

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