Perry Link: On Fang Lizhi

In the New York Review of Books, Perry Link remembers his friend Fang Lizhi, the physicist and one of China’s most prominent dissidents, who died last week:

Fang’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern. Most have been literary figures—writers, editors, or professors of Chinese—who base their dissent in the study of Chinese society and culture. Fang was a natural scientist, and this made him different in important ways.

He was good at explaining how, for him, concepts of human rights grew out of science. In an essay in these pages, he named five axioms of science that had led him toward human rights: 1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs. 2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others. 3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth. 4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information. 5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.

Science was not only the origin of Fang’s thinking on human rights; it remained for him the grounds of authority on the issue. When he began speaking on human rights in the 1980s, his audiences paid him special attention because of his high position in Chinese academic life. No Chinese intellectual who has chosen to speak out on human rights has ever been as high “within the system” as Fang was when he began. To Fang, though, authority of this kind—the kind that derives from bureaucratic position—meant nothing. His own authority was the truths, discoverable by science, that lay within the patterns of the universe. This kind of grounding gave him confidence to confront high Party officials.

Read also an obituary of Fang in the Economist. Read more by and about Fang via CDT.


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