Fang Lizhi: The Real Deng

In the New York Review of Books, exiled astrophysicist Fang Lizhi reviews the record of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and compares his findings with those of Ezra Vogel in his new book, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Fang Lizhi was a professor and vice president of the University of Science and Technology, one of China’s top science universities, and played a major influential role in the pro-democracy movements of the 1980s in China. Following the June 4, 1989 massacre in Beijing, Fang and his wife spent one year hiding in the U.S. Embassy before flying into exile. He now lives in Arizona:

Vogel, an emeritus professor of social sciences at Harvard, retells the story of the massacre in a chapter he calls “The Tiananmen Tragedy,” which ends with a meticulous—and, it seems, angst-ridden—review of all the ways one might evaluate the “tragedy.” In the end Vogel comes down to the following:

What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid—even spectacular—economic growth…. Today hundreds of millions of Chinese are living far more comfortable lives than they were living in 1989, and they enjoy far greater access to information and ideas around the world than at any time in Chinese history. Both educational level and longevity have continued to rise rapidly. For these reasons and others, Chinese people take far greater pride in their nation’s achievements than they did in the previous century.

With these words Vogel indicates that he basically accepts an argument that the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has been making for the past twenty years: that “stability” and economic growth show that the repression at Tiananmen was justified in the long run. When foreign dignitaries or journalists have asked about the massacre, the response of Party leaders has been consistent: if had not taken “resolute” (i.e., murderous) measures, China could not have had the stable society or flourishing economy that it enjoyed in the ensuing years.

Other aspects of government rhetoric, however, suggest that even the sources of such statements do not quite believe them. If it were really true that Deng’s “resolute action” led to economic growth, and that this causal connection is plain for Chinese people to see, one would expect Party propaganda to be highlighting “the suppression at Tiananmen.” But they do the opposite. Over the years, the official description of the massacre events has steadily shrunk from “counterrevolutionary riot” to “turmoil” to “incident” to “flap.” The leaders are well aware that what happened is an extremely ugly mark on their historical record, and they have been eager to have the world forget it as soon as possible.

An excerpt of Vogel’s book can be found on the Asia Society website. China Beat has provided a useful round-up of reviews of and articles about the book.


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