Fang Lizhi (方勵之), one of China’s best-known dissidents, whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, has died in the US, where he fled after China’s 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. He was 76.
Once China’s leading astrophysicist, Fang and his wife hid in the US embassy for 13 months after the crackdown. In exile, he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Fang’s wife, Li Shuxian (李淑嫻), confirmed in Beijing that Fang died on Friday morning in Tucson, Arizona.
Fang inspired a generation, said his friend and fellow exiled dissident Wang Dan (王丹), who announced the death on Facebook and Twitter.
“I hope the Chinese people will never forget that there was once a thinker like Fang Lizhi. He inspired the ’89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy,” Wang said. “One day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi.”
“Fang is my spiritual teacher, his death is a major blow to me. At this moment, my grief is beyond words,” Wang said.
The son of a postal clerk in Hangzhou, China, Fang was admitted to Beijing University in 1952 at age 16 to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. He became one of China’s pioneer researchers in laser theory.
He burst into political prominence during pro-democracy student demonstrations between 1986 and 1988 when he became China’s most outspoken proponent of democratic reform.
Authorities said his speeches to students at the University of Science and Technology, where he was vice president, incited unrest.
Fang was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and fired from his university post. However, he refused to be silenced.
After the June 4, 1989, military crackdown that crushed the seven-week pro-democracy movement, Fang and his wife fled into the US embassy. Fang and Li had both been named in Chinese warrants that could have carried death sentences upon conviction. US diplomats refused to turn them over to Chinese authorities.
China decided to allow the couple to leave the country a year later.
Fang had been a professor in Tucson for about 20 years, said a colleague, physics professor Elliott Cheu. He chatted about his pro-democracy background at cocktail parties, but Cheu mainly knew him as a physicist.
“Even at this stage of his career he was fairly well versed in physics and really understood the material and had a deep understanding of how things worked — which is kind of the mark of a real physicist,” Cheu said.
Meanwhile, following Fang’s death, the exiled leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement and other Chinese dissidents have asked the government to allow them to visit their homeland.
“Because of political reasons we were denied renewal of our passports, had our passports revoked or were denied entry into China,” Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi (吾爾開希), Hu Ping (胡平), Wang Juntao (王軍濤), Wu Renhua (吳仁華) and Xiang Xiaoji (項小吉) said in a letter.
“In short, we have been deprived of our right to return to our country,” they said in the correspondence dated on Friday and released by the Human Rights in China group.