Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China. Fang Lizhi.
Fang Lizhi and Human Rights in China, April 13, 2000
Since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Fang Lizhi has often been regarded as the foremost advocate of human rights in China. As one might well imagine, his championing of democracy and human rights has a long history going back as far as thirty years before Tiananmen Square. In 1957 he argued political ideology had nothing to contribute to scientific inquiry, which initially led the Chinese government to identify him as someone in need of correction. From time to time, several other clashes with the government took place. In 1986 the communist authorities believed he helped start the pro-democracy student demonstrations of that year. In 1987 he was dismissed as vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Anhui province and thrown out of the Communist Party. His dismissal was clearly in retaliation for his fearless pro-democracy speeches throughout China and statements in the foreign press.
Although he did not participate in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, the government accused him of counterrevolutionary activities and of instigating the demonstrations. When the bloody crackdown began, he realized his life was in danger and fled with his wife to the US embassy in Beijing. Forced to live in the embassy for an entire year before being allowed to leave China, he wrote four scientific papers and a number of acceptance speeches for the international awards that he increasingly began receiving in recognition of his heroic defense of democracy and human rights. Since his release, he has taught at Oxford, Princeton, and the University of Arizona, where he is now a tenured professor.
Before turning to his ideas on democracy and human rights, I believe it is important to understand why Albert Einstein is a significant influence on Fang Lizhi. As a prominent fellow scientist, one might well imagine Fang Lizhi to respect and appreciate Einstein’s scientific achievements. More surprisingly though, he finds in Einstein’s progressive social and political ideals an example of a public role for the scientist that he clearly thinks inspiring and worthy of emulation. Einstein of course had the experience of fleeing the Nazis and was always very politically involved in the struggle for a just social order. Especially during the last decade before Einstein died in 1955, he was an active spokesman for human rights and the United Nations, which he felt the Member States had nevertheless failed properly to design and support.
Fang Lizhi, then, conceives of himself, and must be seen properly in the light of, a universal struggle for human freedom and peace. In his 1992 book Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China, he often quotes Einstein not only on scientific matters but also on social and political ones as well. I quote only one reference in support of this fact: “Einstein’s concept of world citizenship was profound. . . . in the years ahead, the human race will have to come to grips with this idea as well” (249).
Let’s come to grips now with Fang Lizhi’s statements on China. He himself has criticized the tendency in China and the West to conceive of China “as totally different from any other civilization in the world” and that therefore “universal principles of human rights don’t fit China’s experience” (New Perspectives Quarterly, Winter 1992). Far from unique despite its huge population, he insists “the Chinese people want the same freedoms as everyone else.” Instead of accepting and even defending what he calls a “double standard” when it comes to China, Fang emphasizes the world community should “uphold human rights as a universal standard.” The suppression of Falun Gong and other dissidents continues to cry out to the world for justice.
The exemplary quality of Fang Lizhi’s appeal to the world community can be discerned in the following excerpt from “Patriotism and Global Citizenship,” originally an interview taped in Beijing in February of 1989 just before the spring turmoil leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre:
Human rights are not the property of a particular race or nationality. . . . These are fundamental freedoms, and everyone on the face of the earth should have them, regardless of what country he or she lives in. I think humanity is slowly coming to recognize this. Such ideas are fairly recent in human history; in Lincoln’s time, only a century past, it was just being acknowledged in the United States that blacks and whites should enjoy the same rights. In China we are only now confronting such an issue. (247)
Here is the voice of a Chinese intellectual we ought to remember the next time the excuse of 1.2 billion people surfaces. Here is a voice of universal human importance reminding us of our own history and responsibilities and what we ourselves at times forget in exchange for business with China. On a number of occasions, Fang Lizhi has criticized the West and particular leaders for believing that trade with China is more important than human rights. With a striking clarity of moral vision, fearing for the long-term stability of Asia, he has pointed out that fascist Germany and Japan both had productive economies that far from resulting in liberal democracy ended in widespread regional and global destruction and misery for millions of people.
Having just read Fang’s writings before leaving for China as a Fulbright Scholar in early June of 1994, I sat in a lecture room of Beijing University with his words and ideas resonating at times in my mind. The lecturers represented a variety of points of view on Chinese history and culture. Those who were obviously presenting the party line scared or appalled me with their distortions of modern Chinese history and their defense of the abuse of human rights on a scale that is almost unbelievable. For those few who managed to find the humanity to affirm the truth about China’s century-long tragedy of violence and chaos, no matter in how careful and guarded of a way, I felt the deepest respect. Here were voices of heroism, reminiscent of the noblest Confucian scholarly traditions, who had the courage to speak the truth in a country in which many were still too afraid, and for good reason. One of my lasting impressions of China is that many individuals were palpably afraid to speak freely about issues of social, political, or public importance.
I was truly shocked and deeply moved by the revelation that the lecture room in which I and thirteen other Fulbright scholars sat every day for two weeks was used as a prison cell for twenty Beijing University professors during the first two years of the Cultural Revolution. Three times a day, they were forced to bow down to Mao’s picture. Even more shocking and disturbing was to hear words, in the very same room, from some of my American colleagues, shamelessly supporting the Chinese communist revolution, as though China would be the country finally to get communism right. The Chinese setting highlighted for me the betrayal of democracy, at tax payer’s expense, among some of my own nation’s elite in an overwhelmingly devastating way. How could the words of Fang Lizhi not resonate in my mind?
We need soberly to remember the violence and oppression when we study or trade with China and remember that the moral, religious, philosophical crisis of China is fundamentally the modern one East and West share.