Fang Lizhi

“Just as scientific research was a way of bearing witness to truths about the natural world, so, Fang believed, intellectual and political inquiry were ways of bearing witness to truths about the political and social world.”

–Orville Schell

Throughout his career, physicist Fang Lizhi (1936-2012) fearlessly criticized the Chinese Communist Party for the stifling restrictions it placed on intellectual freedom, despite the costs to his professional standing. Fang first worked in solid-particle and laser physics. After he was sentenced to a year in solitary confinement during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to do manual labor in the countryside. There, with limited access to books, Fang took up theoretical physics and cosmology, fields in which he would earn international distinction.

As the vice-president of Keda university, Fang fostered openness and worked against the isolation of Chinese intellectuals by hosting foreign scholars and sending students and faculty to study abroad. At the point when he had the the most to lose—a prominent university position and the freedom to travel— he gave speeches championing democracy. In 1986, after student pro-democracy protests erupted in over a hundred universities, Fang was forced to leave Keda and denounced by Party leader Deng Xiaoping.

At one point, the Communist Party distributed a collection of Fang’s speeches and writings as an example of the sort of ideas that should be repudiated. However, as Orville Schell reported, condemning Fang’s words had the opposite effect; people across China were stirred by his call for democracy and human rights.