He's 5-foot-3, stocky, middle-aged, bespectacled, an astrophysicist--an unlikely looking hero. Yet to Chinese students and Chinese-Americans around the world, Fang Lizhi, China's leading dissident, is a hero of nearly mythic stature.
And when he spoke at UCLA this week, in his first public appearance on the West Coast, about 1,000 people--most of them Chinese students or Chinese-Americans who gathered from throughout Southern California--savored his every word.
"He's a spiritual leader. He represents the principle and spirit of the 1989 democracy movement" in China, Wu Feng, a UCLA graduate student from China, said after Fang's speech Tuesday night.
In his speech at the UCLA student union and an earlier press conference attended mostly by Chinese-language media, Fang accused the Chinese government of trampling human rights on all levels. He said that while the world's attention is diverted by the Gulf War, the government is taking the opportunity to quickly and quietly prosecute pro-democracy demonstrators who occupied Beijing's Tian An Men Square in 1989.
Several protesters have already been sentenced to prison for two to four years, but the movement's leaders--such as Wang Dan, a former student of Fang whose trial started Tuesday--could face longer terms, or even death, if convicted.
Fang Lizhi (pronounced Fong Lee-jer), 54, became a household word in China in 1986 when he urged his students at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei to push for individual rights. Demonstrations erupted at the school and sparked student protests across the country. Fang was fired from his post as the university's vice president, expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and was transferred to Beijing, where he could be more closely watched.
When the Tian An Men Square demonstrations were crushed by Chinese troops and tanks on June 3 and 4, 1989, Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, took refuge in the U.S. Embassy, where they remained for a year. Although Fang did not take part in the demonstrations, he was accused by the Chinese government of instigating the protests and labeled a traitor--tantamount to a death sentence.
Last June, apparently to help win a lifting of Western economic sanctions, the Chinese government allowed Fang to leave for England. He came to the United States this month to assume a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.
During his appearance at UCLA, Fang said that the world public has a double standard when it comes to human rights in the Soviet Union and China. The Soviet gulag system is well publicized, while the Chinese lao gai labor camps, which he said number at least 1,000, are virtually unknown outside China.
He appealed to his audience to avoid the "natural preference . . . to only pay attention to our professional work."
"We can't only just pay attention to physics, because in today's world, there are still many evils. We cannot remain silent," he said.
Many of his listeners couldn't get enough of him. More than 100 Chinese students surrounded Fang for nearly an hour after his speech, peppering him with earnest questions in Mandarin about what they should do for democracy.
Every little effort helps, Fang replied, such as relaying news to people inside China. Even demanding that the Chinese consulate renew a passport can be a personal fight for freedom, because "to ask for a passport to go somewhere is a basic human right," he said in Chinese.
If Fang is the symbol of the pro-democracy movement, he insists he is a reluctant one. He said he was first a physicist and second a political activist. "My primary goal is scientific research," he said. He chooses not to join--or lead--any of the numerous pro-democracy organizations in exile, but to "play at a distance" with all of them.
David Ma, a Monterey Park businessman who is a leader of one such organization, the Federation for a Democratic China, said many people believe Fang is or should be the leader of the democracy movement. But the movement in exile, which includes the Paris-based Federation, two other large organizations and dozens of smaller ones, should not have a star, he said.
"That's precisely the democratic concept," he said. "We're not looking for a Mao Tse-tung, one monolithic Deng (Xiaoping)."
Some of the Chinese students in the audience said they thought Fang and other exiled activists each have separate roles. The students who led the Tian An Men protests are suited "to raise emotional reaction from people . . . because they are young, they suffered so much, they saw the dead," said UCLA graduate student Wu Feng. By contrast, she said, Fang is more rational and better when it comes to "sitting down and talking about a plan with someone who's not so emotional--like the State Department."
But some came away disappointed that Fang didn't have a specific plan.
"All I heard was complaints about human rights and numbers," said James Chen, 37, a Baldwin Park realtor who was born in Taiwan.