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In China, exploring the cosmos and the rights of man

Yes, the whole world should be like this: ideal, open, and boundless. At this time, there grows in your mind not only disgust and disdain at the curses by totems, uncivilized barbarities, the addiction to lies, and the worship of the non-existent, but a feeling of pity, pity for ignorance. - Fang Lizhi, June 1987

WHEN astrophysicist Fang Lizhi gazes through his telescope at the shimmering celestial seas above, he often wishes a little of heaven's unbounded freedom could come to pass on earth.

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Professor Fang, China's most outspoken dissident, divides his time between probing the origins of the universe and attacking the injustices of Communist Party rule.

Known as ``China's Andrei Sakharov,'' the unpretentious scientist with a cherubic smile has often enraged Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping with his bold calls for democracy.

``We must resolutely impose sanctions on Fang Lizhi,'' Mr. Deng stormed at a meeting of party leaders in 1986. Fang is ``so arrogant,'' said Deng, that he seeks ``to remold the Communist Party.''

But Fang and his wife, physicist Li Shuxian, are undaunted by persecution. Compelled by a lifelong quest for scientific truth, the couple has fought for the intellectual freedom and human rights denied by China's totalitarian regime.

``What else can I do? I must speak out,'' Fang said during a recent interview. ``I have a responsibility.''

During a decade of reform, Fang's struggle for democracy has gained force as China has disavowed Maoist dogma and xenophobia and has reopened its doors to foreign ideas and technology. But Chinese still lack basic freedoms, and without them, Fang warns, the nation's modernization drive will fail.

Fang says he and millions of Chinese intellectuals, labeled ``brain workers'' by Peking, are treated as pawns of the party. Just as the obedient scholar-officials of imperial China were wedded to the Confucian order, intellectuals today are stifled by the Marxist state, he said.

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``Since 1949, the Communist Party has used intellectuals as its tool. It has been impossible for an independent class to form,'' Fang said.

Today, Fang and his supporters are like the tiny group of iconoclastic scholars who led China to repudiate Confucianism and embrace Western ideas during the 1919 ``May 4 Movement.'' Under the same rallying cry of science and democracy, Fang is challenging Marxist doctrine and one-party rule.

Fang has pushed his demands for political freedom further than any other intellectual in China's recent history. In 1986, ignoring official warnings, he urged students to criticize the government, assailed socialism as a failure, and called on China to embrace ``science, democracy, creativity, and independence.''

That winter, tens of thousands of students nationwide took to the streets, demanding democracy.

Alarmed by the biggest student protests in a decade, Peking ordered police to quash the unrest. Then, with a style reminiscent of Mao Tse-tung's purges, the party launched a shrill campaign, accusing Fang of inciting the outcry by promoting ``total Westernization'' and ``bourgeois liberalization.''

``I have read Fang Lizhi's speeches,'' Deng told party leaders in December 1986. ``Why should we keep people like him in the party? He should be expelled.'' Fang was stripped of his party membership for the second time, dismissed from his post as a university vice-president and reassigned to the Peking Observatory.

His speech punctuated by robust laughter, the charismatic scientist explained with a candor rare among Chinese why he became a political activist.

``It all began with science,'' he said. In the mid-1950s, when Fang studied physics at Peking University, scientific research was severely constrained by the Marxist doctrines of Mao. ``I couldn't stand it,'' he said. ``Marxism dominated everything, including physics. But what Marx and Engels wrote about physics had become obsolete long before!''

Fang wrote an essay critical of China's educational system, for which he was expelled from the party and attacked along with thousands of other intellectuals in Mao's 1957 ``anti-rightist'' campaign.

During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Fang again fell victim to Mao's deep mistrust and resentment of intellectuals. Red Guards imprisoned him for a year, then sent him for ``re-education'' through labor on a communal farm in Anhui Province.

As Red Guards ransacked schools, libraries, and research institutes nationwide, Fang struggled to continue learning. In Anhui, his only book was on cosmology, a `forbidden area'' like many academic subjects.

``China's leaders said [Friedrich] Engels had already solved all the problems in cosmology,'' Fang explained with an ironic grin. ``If you researched cosmology, it meant you doubted Engels.'' Fang secretly pored over the text on the nature of the universe, discovering the new focus of his life's research.

It was not until 1978, when Deng began to redress Mao's abuses, that Fang was rehabilitated and readmitted to the party. But by then, he had lost faith in Marxism and the party. ``Marxism is useless,'' Fang said. ``Philosophically it's very backward. As for socialist theory, experience has proven it a failure.''

Fang's dissent grew bolder as Peking eased controls over academic inquiry, opened many fields for research, and approved the publication of works banned by Mao. He launched reforms to nuture free speech and democracy at an Anhui university where he became vice-president in 1984.

As China's open-door policy allowed thousands of students and scholars to go overseas, Fang experienced Western democracy for the first time.

``Going abroad had a great influence on me,'' said Fang, who traveled to Western Europe, Japan, and the United States on scientific exchanges. ``I saw what it was like to conduct research free from Marxism. Chinese leaders say that without the guidance of Marxism one cannot arrive at correct results. Overseas, I found people achieving striking results, and they were not guided by Marxism!''

Today, the freedom Fang found abroad remains distant. The telephone in his concrete-block apartment is bugged. Authorities rarely allow him to speak in public. Last month, as punishment for criticizing the party, Peking withdrew permission for Fang to attend a US astrophysics conference that he helped organize.

Despite attempts to silence him, Fang is more defiant than ever. Last month, Deng reportedly threatened to sue Fang for voicing the widespread belief that some Chinese leaders and their children hold overseas bank accounts. ``If he really wants to bring suit against me, I would very willingly accept the challenge - it would give me an occasion to appear in public and state my views,'' Fang said.

Enjoying wide support from Chinese intellectuals, Fang believes the party will avoid the public outcry that jailing him would provoke. ``I have nothing to lose,'' Fang said. ``All they can do is criticize me again. They can't criticize away my ideas, my knowledge.''

Part of an occasional series on the effect a decade of economic reform in China has had on individual lives.

On democracy and China's future

The following are excerpts from an interview with Fang Lizhi:

What does the word democracy mean to the Chinese?

In China today, the concept of democracy is very broad. Striving for democracy amounts to striving for basic human rights like freedom of speech, press, publication, travel.

What are the prospects for progress toward democracy in China?

In comparison with other countries, China is just beginning. In Poland, Solidarity has a very strong organization. Chinese workers still lack that kind of organization. Chinese students aren't organized either. In China, the first step is freedom of speech and press. Then, public opinion will exert definite pressure on the party.

The development of democracy in China is unlikely to be smooth. There have always been twists and turns, more openness and then repression.

In the long term, I'm optimistic because I think there is an international trend toward democracy. Moreover, socialism is waning. This is unavoidable.

What type of political system would you like to see in China in the future?

The most important is for China to have a multiparty system.

One can't expect everyone in Chinese society to hold the same views as the Communist Party demands. ``One heart and one mind for the whole nation'' - that's impossible! Only with different parties can we achieve balance and compromise ....

I believe that a democratic environment is actually more stable. Forced stability isn't real stability .... Consider the case of a natural phenomenon: the typhoon. People feel that typhoons are very destabilizing. But if there weren't a typhoon, the weather would be even worse. Every once in a while you need a typhoon to adjust things.

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