“Fang Lizhi”

A great loss for China, even if the government won’t acknowledge it (via The Telegraph):

He launched an ambitious decentralisation plan at Keda, allowing staff to join administrative panels in discussions about funding and promotions. Furthermore, he established exchange programmes with foreign universities. “I am determined to create intellectual and academic freedom,” he told an interviewer from The Atlantic magazine.

Initially his initiatives were welcomed by the Chinese authorities. But by the end of 1986 students at Keda took the liberalising campaign to the political stage, demanding the right to nominate candidates at local elections. Soon tens of thousands of students were protesting on campuses across the country.

As his experiment spun out of control, Fang rapidly fell from favour. Stripped of his job at Keda, he was reassigned to the Beijing Observatory. In January 1987, he was denounced by Deng himself and expelled from the Communist Party.

The move simply cemented Fang’s position as an opposition figurehead. Over the next three years he hinted at greed and nepotism in the senior ranks of the party. By early 1989 his apartment had become a focal point for pro-reform meetings. In January that year he wrote to Deng demanding the release of political prisoners. Then, in February, he was invited by George Bush to attend a Texan-style barbecue that the American president was hosting on his first state visit to China.

Fang set off for the party with his wife, but was pulled over by a traffic policeman. They resumed the journey in a taxi, only for that to be stopped too. Proceeding on foot, they arrived at the home of the American ambassador, who was not in. Spotted by a Canadian diplomat, Fang soon found himself at the president’s press centre, giving a blow-by-blow account of the harassment he had suffered to the world’s press.

Two months later, reacting to the death of Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded Communist Party General Secretary, students began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square; in June the tanks rolled in.

On June 5 Fang and his wife were granted refuge inside the American embassy, which considered them in “personal danger”. But it took a year of delicate negotiations before the pair were allowed to leave the country.

Once in the United States, Fang became a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There he continued his research into the origins of the universe, dropping the odd hint at faculty drinks parties of his unusual career path. He is survived by his wife and a son.

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