June 11, 1989 (a Sunday)

The Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi at home in Beijing, shortly before taking refuge at the US embassy during and after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, 1989.

On this day, in the wake of the June 4th crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, China issued a warrant for a leading Chinese dissident who had taken refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The diplomatic standoff lasted for a year, and the refusal of the United States to hand the dissident over to Chinese officials was further evidence of American disapproval of China’s crackdown on political protesters.

The Chinese government used this brutal crackdown as a pretext for issuing an arrest warrant for Fang Lizhi, an internationally respected astrophysicist and leading Chinese dissident. Although Fang had not participated in the Tiananmen Square protests, he had been a consistent advocate of greater political democracy and a persistent critic of government policies.  On June 5, Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, took refuge in the U.S. embassy.

In the June arrest warrant, Fang and his wife were charged with “committing crimes of counter-revolutionary propaganda and instigation.”  Chinese officials demanded that the American government hand over the pair, but the U.S. refused.  Fang and his wife remained in the U.S. embassy until June 25, 1990, when they were allowed by Chinese authorities to leave the embassy and board a U.S. Air Force C-135 transport plane to Britain.

During his time in the embassy, Fang wrote an essay entitled “The Chinese Amnesia”, criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of human rights and the outside world’s turning a blind eye to it. The entire essay (translated by Perry Link) was eventually published in The New York Review of Books on September 27, 1990. The following is a portion of it:

Excerpt from “The Chinese Amnesia” (1989)
By Fang Lizhi
(translated by Perry Link)

There seems to be no accurate count of all the books that have appeared about the Tiananmen events of the spring of 1989. But certainly they have been many. A friend at Columbia University recently wrote me that she and one of her Chinese colleagues, both of whom were eyewitnesses at Tiananmen, had originally planned to write a book about it. But publishers told them that so many Tiananmen books were already available that the market had become “saturated.” The two reluctantly dropped their plan. It seems that a new Tiananmen book, for now, can have only a modest circulation.

In my view, a large but “saturated” market is itself one of the most important consequences to emerge from the events at Tiananmen. It signals the failure of the “Technique of Forgetting History,” which has been an important device of rule by the Chinese Communists. I have lived under the Chinese Communist regime for four decades, and have had many opportunities to observe this technique at work. Its aim is to force the whole of society to forget its history, and especially the true history of the Chinese Communist party itself.

In 1957 Mao Zedong launched an “Anti-Rightist Movement” to purge intellectuals, and 500,000 people were persecuted. Some were killed, some killed themselves, and some were imprisoned or sent for “labor reform.” The lightest punishment was to be labeled a “Rightist.” This was called “wearing a cap” and meant that one had to bear a powerful stigma. I had just graduated from college that year, and also in that year was purged for the first time.

After the 1957 Anti-Rightist purge, what worried me most was not that I had been punished, or that free thought had been curtailed. At that time, I was still a believer, or semibeliever, in Marxism, and felt that the criticism of free thought, including my own free thought, was not entirely unreasonable. But what worried me, what I just couldn’t figure out, was why the Communist party in China would want to use such cruel methods against intellectuals who showed just a tiny bit (and some not even that) of independent thought. I had always assumed that the relationship between the Communist party and intellectuals, including intellectuals who had some independent views, was one of friendship–or at least not one of enmity.

Later I discovered that this worry of mine seemed ridiculous to teachers and friends who were ten or twenty years older than I. They laughed at my ignorance of history. They told me how, as early as 1942, before the Party had wrested control of the whole country, the same cruel methods against intellectuals were already being used at the Communist base in Yan’an. In college I had taken courses in Communist party history, and of course knew that in 1942 at Yan’an there had been a “rectification” movement aimed at “liberalism,” “individualism,” and other non-Marxist thought. But it was indeed true that I had had no idea that the methods of that “rectification” included “criticism and struggle”–which meant in practice forcing people to commit suicide, and even execution by beheading. People who had experienced the Yan’an “rectification” paled at the very mention of it. But fifteen years later my generation was completely ignorant of it. We deserved the ridicule we received.

After another thirteen years, in 1970, it became our turn to laugh at a younger generation. This was in the middle stage of the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976. In the early stage of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong had used university students, many of whom supported him fanatically, to bring down his political opponents. But in the early 1970s these same students became the targets of attack. In 1970 all the students and teachers in the physics department of the Chinese University of Science and Technology were sent to a coal mine in Huainan, Anhui Province, for “re-education.” I was a lecturer in physics at the time. The movement to “criticize and struggle” against the students’ “counterrevolutionary words and deeds” reached its most intense point during the summer. Some students were “struggled”; others were locked up “for investigation”; a good number could not endure the torment of the vile political atmosphere and fell ill. One of my assignments was to pull a plank-cart (like a horse cart, but pulled by a human being) to transport the ill students. Of the group of forty-some students working in the same mine as I did, two were driven to suicide–one by jumping off a building, the other by lying in front of a train.

Most of these students, as innocent as I had been in 1957, never imagined that the Communist government could be so cruel in its treatment of students who had followed them so loyally. Later one of the students, who became my co-worker in astrophysical research (and who is now in the US), confided to me that he had had no knowledge whatever of the true history of the Anti-Rightist Movement. It was not until he was himself detained and interrogated that he slowly began to appreciate why some of the older people he knew lived in such fear of the phrase Anti-Rightist. The whole story of the main actors and issues had, for this generation, become a huge blank.

Fang’s assessment of the world’s indifference to the oppression of human rights in China was accurate, at least in the United States; the American media had rarely mentioned human rights violations in China since the Democracy Wall movement was crushed in 1979 and its leaders were thrown in jail. As reported in an article entitled “China News Blackout” (Summer, 1989), written by Martin A. Lee and published by FAIR, the national media watch group:

“Look at Wei Jingshen,” Deng Xiaoping said of a prominent Democracy Wall dissident (Progressive, 3/87). “We put him behind bars and the democracy movement died. We haven’t released him, but that did not raise much of an international uproar.”

Shortly after the suppression of the Democracy Wall movement, Deng introduced economic and legal reforms. “A wave of euphoria swept through U.S. government and press circles,” recalled Roberta Cohen, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights under Carter. “The enthusiasm for free-market initiatives and other reforms became the new rationale for turning a blind eye to the continuing repression in China.”

According to the State Department’s 1987 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, between 2 million and 5 million people languished in Chinese labor camps and prisons. New York Times correspondent Fox Butterfield reported on the existence of Chinese gulags when he was based in China in the early 1980s, but there wasn’t much follow-up in the U.S. press.

U.S. media remained tight-lipped when President Ronald Reagan approved sales of police equipment to China’s internal security force, expanded military ties and encouraged loans and investment despite serious human rights abuses by the Chinese government. The brutalization of Tibet and the relentless suppression of dissent in China were off the press agenda until late in Reagan’s second term. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, thousands of Chinese prisoners were being tortured, while others faced illegal arrests, unwarranted search and seizure, and other forms of harassment.

Journalists were outraged when Deng and company imposed harsh press restrictions during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, but U.S. reporters appear to have practiced a form of self-censorship with respect to Chinese human rights violations for nearly a decade. “American administrations yawned at reports of repression of basic freedoms in China…. So, much too often, did American journalism,” A.M. Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times (6/13/89) shortly after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Rosenthal’s complaint rings hollow, for it was during his tenure as New York Times executive editor that reporting on Chinese abuses virtually ceased. No news stories on China and human rights are listed in the Times index from 1984 through 1986. Ditto for Time magazine, which selected Deng Xiaoping as “Man of the Year” in 1985. Newsweek managed only one story on the subject for these three years.

The media silence was all the more deafening in light of what transpired in China during this period. Vice President George Bush visited the People’s Republic in 1985, but this provoked none of the concern for political prisoners that journalists displayed when U.S. officials met with Soviet leaders. And another round of student protests was put down in December 1986 by Deng Xiaoping, who stated at the time (Progressive, 3/87):”When necessary one must deal severely with those who defy orders. We can afford to shed some blood.” This is the man Bush hailed as a “forward-looking” leader.

In February 1989, more than one hundred Chinese security personnel had forcibly prevented Fang Lizhi from attending a banquet with President George Bush (the First), even though he had received a highly publicized invitation. And yet, Bush subsequently failed to raise the human rights issue with Chinese officials. The best he could muster was a statement of regret channeled though his spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater. In a case of too little, too late, editorials in major dailies chided Bush for not taking a tougher stand in Beijing (Miami Herald, 2/28/89; New York Times, 3/1/89).

Nevertheless, the Fang Lizhi incident indicated that feelings about what had occurred in Tiananmen Square ran high, both in the United States and China; it seemed America had finally taken notice.

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