by Jim Nintzel
Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, who helped lead the way for the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989 and lived in Tucson in exile, died here yesterday. The New York Times reports:
Fang Lizhi, whose advocacy of economic and democratic freedoms shaped China’s brief era of student dissent that ended with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and his exile, died on Friday in Tucson, Ariz., his son, Fang Ke, said Saturday.
Mr. Fang was 76. The cause of death was not known, his son said in a telephone interview.
A brilliant scientist — and in his early years a loyal member of the Communist Party — Mr. Fang had become China’s best-known dissident by the 1980s, his views shaped by persecution in China and exposure to Western political concepts abroad.
In early 1989, he published an open letter to China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, calling for the release of political prisoners. The letter helped galvanize a pro-democracy student movement that spring, climaxing on June 4, when Chinese troops killed hundreds of student protesters among the masses occupying Tiananmen Square.
Fearing arrest, Mr. Fang sought refuge with his family at the United States Embassy in Beijing. President George Bush’s decision to grant him protection there provoked a yearlong diplomatic standoff with the Chinese that ended, after secret negotiations, with a decision by Chinese leaders in June 1990 to allow the family to leave China, ostensibly for medical treatment.
Mr. Fang later became a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he taught and continued to speak out on human rights until his death.
I interviewed Fang way back in 1995:
Fang Lizhi knows he may never see his homeland again.
Were he ever to return to China, Fang would find himself "detained indefinitely" by the current communist government.
So he spends his days in exile as a physics professor at the University of Arizona, doing research, writing articles and chatting with his colleagues in Asia via the Internet. He also sometimes quietly crusades for human rights, as he will this Saturday, April 29, when he'll talk about Human Rights in China: Recent Developments.
The unassuming Fang chose the path that would lead to his exodus decades ago. As a scientist and teacher in southern China in the 1970s, he came to an inescapable conclusion.
"I first began demanding freedom for research," he says. "Science needs free thinking, free circulation of ideas." But soon, he adds, "I got concerned not only for freedom of science, but freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble."
It was those demands for civil rights and democracy that Fang began spreading when he came to teach in Beijing in the late 1980s.
The students listened, and then began organizing protests for their rights. Finally, the people in the democracy movement occupied Tiananmen Square in the late spring of '89.
The whole world watched on live television the heartbreaking events that followed: The soldiers moving in, the tank coming to a halt before one man brave enough to stand in its path and the shutdown of the television crews just before the massacre.
Following the crackdown, Chinese authorities tried to round up Fang and his family, but they escaped to the American embassy. There he spent 13 months while the Chinese and U.S. governments worked out a deal that brought him to America.