China: Struggle to Remember Fang Lizhi

Chinese intellectual Fang Lizhi, who inspired a whole generation of student activists during the 1980s, passed away on April 6, 2012, at the age of 76. Fang had been in exile in the United States for 22 years.

As if the time he spent exiled wasn't enough, Chinese authorities were also quick to ban the news of his death from appearing online in China, and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece media declared that Fang has been forgotten.

Born in 1936, Fang joined the CCP underground network when he was just 12 years old, entering the Beijing University School of Physics in 1952, following which he became an astrophysics professor. Similar to the fate of many intellectuals of his generation, Fang was prosecuted during the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the 1950s and again during the Cultural Revolution for expressing his opinions.

Fang Lizhi (right) and Wang Dan (1989 student activist). Photo by Wang Dan

In 1986, Fang openly supported the student's democratic movement and was expelled from the CCP and removed from his position as vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China. Nonetheless, Fang remained politically active and even criticized then statesman Deng Xiaoping‘s Four Cardinal Principles when interviewed by foreign media in 1988, following that with an open letter in January 1989 urging Deng to release political prisoners of the 1978 Beijing Spring.

After the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian sought asylum in the U.S embassy in Beijing and went into exile the following year.

As a well-respected teacher who lived his life in defense of his beliefs, Fang is recognized for having inspired a whole generation of university students. Chinese authorities, however, would rather see him forgotten. As news of his death spread out in the Chinese speaking world, the name, “Fang Lizhi” became blocked throughout the Chinese internet, leaving netizens only able to use “Mr. Fang” to express their condolences and feelings. At the same time, Hu Xijin, chief editor of Global Times, another CCP mouthpiece, has apparently been granted the privilege of writing Fang Lizhi's full name in Sina Weibo, and to propagate that Fang has been forgotten in China [zh]:

方励之先生在美去世,享年76岁。说实话,我挺同情他个人的。 他的追求和用力没有同中国的进步合上拍子,他实际上已被遗忘。希望中国知识分子未来更理性。中国不应再出现一些精英受外国支持保护,同国家政权对抗的局面。那属于旧时代,是往回走。达赖受的支持最多,但都是过眼浮云,他的成功机会是零。

Mr. Fang Lizhi has passed away in the U.S at the age of 76. To be frank, I am quite sympathetic of him as an individual. What he pursued failed to follow the rhythm of China's progress. He has been forgotten. I hope Chinese intellectuals will be more rational in the future. Chinese elites should not be supported and protected by foreign powers in confronting the country. Such situations belong to the past. The Dalai Lama may enjoy the most support now, but it will only be temporary. The chance of his success is equal to zero.

Hu's comments left many infuriated and has drawn thousands of angry replies. Below are some of the typical ones:


@孙弘武的博客:Hu Xijin has positioned himself as the guard dog of the country, but you only safeguard the door of the privileged class, who feed you with meat-filled buns so that you'll bite whoever promotes reform and democracy in this country.


柳絮飞扬spare:So pretentious. Someone has died, but still lives (like Mr. Fang); Someone is alive but dead (like Editor Hu).


只配抬杠:#Hu Xijin# Many officials follow the ‘rhythm’ and earn a lot of money from corruption. Many shameless little men who don't speak their minds follow the ‘rhythm’ and become chief editors. Your logic is to justify the status quo and any opinion that questions it ‘fails’ to follow the rhythm. Your brain is totally dead. It's unfortunate for our country that elites have to be protected by foreign countries. It is unfortunate for you to accuse these elites.

Human rights blogger Mo Zhixu explained the political meaning behind Hu's statement:

@mozhixu 胡锡进的想法,其实反映了体制内得势群体的主流意见,不正视这一点,成天意淫政改,须吃胡锡进的耻笑。

@mozhixu [zh] Hu Xijin is a reflection of the mainstream opinion of the ruling class in the government. We have to face this and stop fantasizing about political reform coming from within. Hu likes to make jokes out out of such naive imagination.

@mozhixu 胡锡进的所有观点其实都可以归结于一句话:“老子吃定你们了,请识相点!” 对此,我也只有一句话:走着瞧,你Y不就是有几辆坦克吗。。。。

@mozhixu [zh] Hu Xijin's point can be summarized in one sentence: “We have the upper hand and you should be submissive!” I will give a one-sentence response to him: “Wait and see, because all you have are just a couple of tanks… “

The social media censor machine's filtering of the name “Fang Lizhi”, and the removal of condolence messages as many netizens are struggle to remember him, reflects how threatening Chinese authorities find the spirit Fang represented:


宅哥的世界:Mr Fang has gone. He died as a guest away from home. Elites being exiled, this is a shame for the country.


深绿仙人掌: intellectuals like Lu Xun, I'm too young to meet such great people. Perhaps they all end up in jail. The news about the death of Mr. Fang has been censored away, after all these years [that he's been in exile]. History will prove that you are right.


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