BEIJING — "Before the banquet, without consulting with the Chinese side, the U.S. side sent an invitation ... to a certain individual unacceptable to the Chinese side." --Chinese Foreign Ministry
A few weeks before New Year's, on Jan. 6, the phone rang at Perry Link's apartment in Beijing's Friendship Hotel. It was Fang Lizhi on the line. They had met the previous September and had seen each other a few times since. Fang had enlisted Link's help in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Chinese authorities to let him travel to the United States for a scientific conference.
"Would you come over?" Fang asked the American professor.
Link hopped on his bicycle and rode the short distance to Fang's apartment building in the Haidian district of northwestern Beijing. From Fang's 11th-floor apartment, he could see the usual midwinter smog settling over the city.
Link sat down, and Fang tossed a letter into his lap. "Look," said Fang. "I wrote this letter to Deng Xiaoping."
Link scanned the letter. Fang was proposing that Deng use the coming anniversaries of the founding of the People's Republic or of the nationalistic protests of 1919 "to announce a general amnesty within China, and in particular to release Wei Jingsheng and all other political prisoners." Such an action, Fang wrote, "would be a humanitarian gesture and would have a beneficial effect on our social morale."
Wei, leader of the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s, had been in prison for a decade. In December, 1978, Wei, then a 29-year-old electrician, published an essay called "The Fifth Modernization," arguing that China needed political democracy along with economic modernization. The following year, he was arrested and convicted at a closed trial of conducting "counterrevolutionary propaganda and agitation." He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Despite such cases, China's official position is that the country has no political prisoners. Wei, and others like him, are classified as "counterrevolutionaries"-- and therefore criminals.
Link put Fang's letter down. "What do you want me to do with this?"
"Do whatever you want," replied Fang.
Fang put a regular eight-cent stamp on the letter and mailed it to Deng, who did not reply. Link, meanwhile, took a copy back to the Friendship Hotel, translated it into English, called several reporters and gave them copies.
The letter was quickly published in Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong, the United States and throughout the world. By February, intellectuals inside China were organizing petitions in support of Fang's letter.
Fang Lizhi is a chubby, somewhat awkward man who wears the emblematic black-rimmed glasses of a Chinese intellectual. Three years ago he was an obscure figure, his name recognizable to only a few Chinese and almost no foreigners. He was a Communist Party member and a scientist, although, like many intellectuals, he had spent two years in the Chinese countryside during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, working on railways and mining coal.
In late 1986, while serving as vice president of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Fang had encouraged some of his students to demand more open elections to the local legislature after Communist Party officials had tried to include only their own candidates on ballot lists. Student demonstrations in Hefei spread to several other cities, including Shanghai, where tens of thousands of students had taken to the streets.
Fang's actions angered the party leaders, including Deng. The following month, Fang was expelled both from his university job and from the Communist Party. But he was not jailed or exiled--and he was not silenced.
In the two years since his expulsion from the party, Fang gradually sharpened and honed his attacks on China's leadership. Marxism, he said, is "like a worn dress that must be put aside." Moreover, he said, the Chinese Communist Party "has achieved nothing of value during the past 30 years."
Last winter, Fang took things a step further and began denouncing corruption by party leaders and their families. While on one trip to Australia last year, he publicly repeated rumors that many Chinese leaders and their families maintained foreign bank accounts.
On Feb. 20, a cool, cloudy day in the Washington area, President Bush assembled with his top foreign policy advisers and a group of Asia scholars at Camp David, Md. They were making plans for Bush's first overseas trip as President, a visit to Asia with the primary stop being Tokyo for the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
In addition to Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle sat in on the talks. So did Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.