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Remembering Fang Lizhi: 'hero of the people,' hated by China's regime

Fellow dissident Wei Jingsheng pays tribute to Fang Lizhi, who inspired pro-democracy students in China. Fang warned in 2010: 'Regardless of how widely China’s leaders have opened its market to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.'

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One of China’s best-known dissidents, Fang Lizhi, shown in this June 4, 1999 file photo at the University of Arizona in Tucson, died April 6 at age 76. Op-ed contributor Wei Jingsheng remembers Mr. Fang as a 'great Chinese patriot' whose death in exile in the US 'symbolizes the harsh truth about the ruling Communist regime that Fang often warned the world about.'

James S. Wood/The Arizona Daily Star/AP/file

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Professor Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist whom many regarded as “China’s Sakharov,” died suddenly at his home in Arizona last week.

For this great Chinese patriot to die in the American desert 22 years after he was forced into exile symbolizes the harsh truth about the ruling Communist regime which Mr. Fang often warned the world about.

For those of us whose memories have not been erased by the censorship of getting rich gloriously, Fang was a hero. In the years and months leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, he dared to tell the historical facts – about Mao, the Party, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – to a new generation.

Although I didn’t meet him until later in life, our fates were intertwined through the democracy movement. It was Professor Fang’s open letter to Deng Xiaoping on January 6, 1989, that sparked the mass movement that Deng would crush in June. In that letter he called for my release from prison, where I had already served 10 of the 15 years I would ultimately serve for my big character poster calling for “the Fifth Modernization” – democracy.

My gratitude to Fang remains immense. For foreign dignitaries to ask the Chinese government to release me was one thing, and I am of course grateful. But for the person whom Deng Xiaoping hated most to openly offend the dictator required enormous courage.

The temper of a dictator is not to bow to any pressure. Such pressure from abroad was easier to resist because intractability could be wrapped in the flag of sovereignty. To Deng, Fang Lizhi was much more dangerous because his voice resonated with the younger generation who were China’s future. Deng well understood that Fang offered a decidedly different path to that future – one Deng proved he could not abide on June 4 when he called out the tanks.

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