The Chinese Human Rights Reader:

47. Open Letter to Deng Xiaoping (1989)

Fang Lizhi

Fang Lizhi (b. 1936) is a leading expert in astrophysics and cosmology, but alongside his academic work he has throughout his life taken a strong interest in more philosophical and political issues. Fang’s first serious brush with the Chinese authorities came in 1957 during the anti-rightist movement, when he was criticized for advocating reform of China’s educational system and was expelled from the Party. He was allowed to continue to work in his field, however, until the eruption of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Like so many other scientists and academics Fang was then branded as reactionary, “struggled against,” and “sent down” to the countryside to do manual work. Although he was allowed to resume teaching as early as 1969, when he was transferred to the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province, full rehabilitation did not come until 1978. In the 1980s Fang made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of bureaucratism and lack of academic freedom within the educational system. He did not confine himself to the educational field, but also addressed more political issues in speeches and lectures on campuses around the country. The experiences of the Cultural Revolution served to make Fang critical of the Party, and he was among the first in China to openly question communism. When student demonstrations erupted in 1986, beginning at Fang’s university, it was inevitable that he would become a target in the campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” that was launched in response. Fang lost his position and was once again expelled from the Party. But far from being silenced, Fang continued to discuss democracy and human rights in interviews with foreign journalists. Fang strongly defends the idea that human rights are universal, and is highly critical of any references to “China’s unique characteristics” when it comes to the implementation of human rights. In January 1989, Fang wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, reprinted here, in which he called for the release of Wei Jingsheng. This was the first time a member of the intellectual establishment publicly demanded the release of a political dissident. The letter created something of a stir and inspired other intellectuals and scientists to follow suit with open letters in support. Although Fang and his wife Li Shuxian did not take active part in the 1989 democracy movement, they were later singled out as masterminds behind it. After having spent one year in the sanctuary of the American embassy in Beijing after the crackdown, they were allowed to leave the embassy and their country and are now living in exile in the United States.

Last updated: 12/10/01
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