WASHINGTON — In effect, they are hostages and political exiles marooned on a tiny American island amid a churning Chinese ocean. American diplomats have privately dubbed them "the guests," or sometimes, "the furniture."
He is China's leading dissident, Fang Lizhi, and she is his wife, Li Shuxian. And they've spent the last year, since soon after the bloodletting around Tian An Men Square last June, in the American Embassy in Beijing, waiting for statesmen to negotiate their future.
Fang dispatches frequent letters to his friends and relatives overseas from his temporary home.
He often writes on a computer, apparently supplied by the embassy, that has both English and Chinese word-processing software. His letters are full of humor, but also, occasionally, touches of frustration and melancholy.
"I am an astrophysicist, and yet I cannot see the sky," Fang complained to one Princeton University scientist.
In return, Fang's friends send him not only letters but voluminous reading matter. Fellow scientists from around the world send Fang professional journals and texts. Supporters of China's pro-democracy movement send him news clippings and political material--particularly the work of Soviet and East European intellectuals who, like Fang, challenged the Communist system.
Fang's mailbag recently included Chinese-language translations of the famous 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless" by Czechoslovakia's dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel, and a separate article by Polish dissident Adam Michnik. American writer Orville Schell sent Fang a transcript of the court proceedings against another famous scientist-dissident, Galileo.
As one of China's leading physicists, and as a senior administrator at the Chinese University of Science and Technology, Fang was once a ranking and well-rewarded member of the Communist Party he now so eloquently criticizes. He was expelled in 1987 after encouraging students at his school to organize demonstrations for democratic reform.
Those demonstrations in 1986 and 1987 turned out to be precursors of the upheavals at Tian An Men Square last spring. And three days after the People's Liberation Army crushed the Beijing demonstrations, Fang and his wife, Li, denounced by the Chinese regime as traitors and counterrevolutionaries, sought safety inside the American Embassy.
They have been there since--unable to leave, surrounded by watchful Chinese police on the streets outside.
Obscured from the outside world, Fang and Li nevertheless have remained at or near the center of attention in the fitful efforts at reconciliation between the Bush Administration and the Chinese regime of senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
The American sheltering of Fang was one of the principal factors behind an outpouring of anti-Americanism by the Chinese regime last summer. Negotiating Fang's release is believed to have been one of the top items on the agenda when Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, made his controversial trip to Beijing last December. And China's failure to let Fang go was one of the main reasons that Bush said earlier this year that he had been disappointed by China's failure to respond to his overtures.
It is possible that the couple may be allowed to leave the embassy--perhaps even within the next few weeks. The broad outlines of a deal to accomplish their release are easy to imagine.
For its part, the Bush Administration would like to end the standoff and have China allow Fang and Li to leave the country.
The Chinese regime would like to regain its access to hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from the World Bank and the Japanese government--loans that were frozen largely because of pressure from the United States. The blocked loans to China are expected to be on the agenda at the economic summit of leading industrial nations in Houston next month, and Fang's release might cause Bush to clear the way for the loans.
But past efforts to work out a deal have failed. Before Fang and his wife can be released, several sticking points need to be worked out:
* \o7 What kind of statement would Fang have to sign?
\f7 "He's offered to sign some document that tells the truth, but not to confess to things he hasn't done," says one U.S. supporter.
The Chinese regime may want Fang to admit to orchestrating last year's demonstrations. Fang stayed away from Tian An Men Square and denied that he played any major role in organizing the protests there. So far, there is no evidence to the contrary.
* \o7 Where would Fang go?
\f7 The Chinese regime does not want Fang in France or the United States, the two centers of Chinese intellectuals and students pressing for democracy in their homeland. Once there, Fang would quickly emerge as a leader and unifying force for the now-fragmented opposition to the Chinese regime.
Other countries, such as Italy and Australia, have been mentioned as possible new homes for Fang. Italy recently said he would be welcome there.