On this date, Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist whom many regarded as “China’s Sakharov,” died at age 76 in Arizona.
Fang Lizhi — who worked on his nation’s elite nuclear program in the 1950s — was one of the most brilliant Chinese scientists of his era. He was also the most courageous.
In the 1980s, when he broke with communist orthodoxy and spoke out on human rights and democracy, he was the highest-ranking person in the People’s Republic ever to do so. 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. His trenchant words inspired a generation of Chinese youth but led to his firing, expulsion from the Communist Party and forced exile, which lasted until his death.
He once explained that it was the principles of science — which values doubt, independent judgment and egalitarianism — that led him to embrace human rights. 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.” How much did China lose by forcing a citizen with his gifts to live the last 22 years of his life in exile?