BOLINAS, CALIF. — In the fall of 1986 an audience of young students at Shanghai's Tongji University burst into ecstatic applause when a middle-aged professor stood up before them and publicly proclaimed, "Socialism is at a low ebb. It is an incontrovertible fact that no socialist state in the post-World War II era has been successful, our own 30-odd-year-long socialist experiment notwithstanding . . . . I am here to tell you that the socialist movement, from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, has been a failure."
What electrified these students was not only the speaker's fearless criticism of the shibboleth of Chinese communism, but his prescription for its replacement. "The most critical component of any democratic regimen is human rights," he told them, before going on to lament that the Chinese and their governments had a long tradition of treating these rights as "nothing more than abstract ideas."
The man who dared utter these hitherto unspeakable thoughts was Fang Lizhi, a renowned astrophysicist and vice president of China's prestigious University of Science and Technology. Having just returned from a research trip to the United States, impressed with what he had seen abroad, Fang had decided to take Deng Xiaoping's new rhetoric about the need for political reform at face value. He began traveling around China, giving talks at universities on democracy and human rights.
"Democratization (in China) has come to mean something conferred by superiors on inferiors," he told the students at Shanghai. "But this is a serious misunderstanding of democracy. Our government cannot grant us democracy by loosening our bonds a little. This only gives us enough freedom to writhe. Freedom by decree is not fit to be called democracy."
Students who heard Fang could hardly believe their ears. It was the first time in 35 years they had heard any senior Establishment Chinese intellectual speak out so honestly and audaciously on such sensitive political questions. When student demonstrations demanding more democracy and freedom broke out in more than 20 of China's major cities that winter, the party quite logically viewed Fang as their main instigator.
By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the suppression of free thought among Chinese intellectuals was so total that most people within China had long since despaired of democracy. Observers outside China had come to wonder if, beneath the carefully polished surface of ideological unity affected by the party, there was any dissent at all. While the Soviet Union's efforts to create the illusion of socialist unity had repeatedly been pierced by the activities and protests of disobedient refuseniks, maverick intellectuals, human-rights activists and defectors, China's intelligentsia appeared to march lock-step behind the "correct line" of the party.
However, when Deng came to power in 1977 and began to implement his extraordinary reforms, China's intelligentsia slowly came alive again, and some of its bolder members cautiously started to speak out. But traumatized and scarred by all the political campaigns that had raged across China for so long, many remained as cautious as prisoners on parole, afraid to appear as trouble-makers. The truth was that although Deng's reforms had brought an undeniable new openness into economic life, in politics the controlling hand of the party kept its grip.
But Fang, a man steeped in the empiricism of science rather than the shifting sands of Central Committee dogma, managed to escape the intellectually stultifying control of the party better than most. Through his travels abroad, he came to believe that China's modernization without democratization would be folly, not to say impossible. Firmly believing not only that rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and press were natural and inalienable, but that it was the responsibility of intellectuals to speak out on political as well as professional issues, Fang set off on a philosophical pilgrimage putting him in direct opposition to the party.
In a way both shocking because of his absolute lack of self-censorship and refreshing because of his guilelessness, Fang quickly won the attention and devotion of a whole new generation of students who had become deeply cynical about communism as an ideology and one-party gerontocracy as a system of government.
"What is the real reason why we have lost our ideals and discipline?" he brazenly asked students at Beijing University. "The real reason is that many of our important leaders have failed to discipline themselves."
In the winter of 1987, during the hard-line crackdown that followed student demonstrations, Fang was fired from his university vice presidency, expelled from the party and savagely attacked in the official press for having "negated the socialist system," for having wantonly spread "bourgeois liberalism" and "wholesale Westernization." China appeared on the precipice of another neo-Maoist political campaign.