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In His Own Words: Liu Gang: A Story of Physics and Freedom in China

gangEditor's Note: On the afternoon of 19 May 1996, K.C. Hsieh, a representative of the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), interviewed the former imprisoned physics graduate student, Liu Gang. The two-and-a-half hour interview took place in the office of Prof. Fang Li-zhi, Department of Physics at the University of Arizona. Fang Li-zhi, 1996 recipient of the APS Nicholson Medal, is a former chair of CIFS and a dissident from China. Notes of the interview, supplemented by material previously published about Liu Gang, served as the basis for the first -person narrative presented below.

Early Involvement My involvement with the democracy movement in China began in 1984, when I was a graduate student in physics at Beijing University. Students in physics were particularly active in the movement for democracy and freedom. In 1986, I was arrested with 30 others for publicly displaying articles on democracy. We were released the next day after students from Beijing University staged a demonstration.

After graduating in 1987, I joined and organized several intellectual gatherings in Beijing. For example, in 1988, during the People's Congress, we pleaded in front of the motorcade of the People's Representatives for an increase in the national budget for education and for better treatment of intellectuals. Because of my involvement in these activities, I became a target of police surveillance and harassment.

Tiananmen Square, 1989

I entered Tiananmen Square on 20 April 1989, and between 23 April and 4 May, I played a central role in the activities on the Square. We were rational, peaceful, and non-violent, as demonstrated by the rally on 27 April, the largest ever to openly challenge the Communist Party. In fear of violent suppression from the government, I was against the hunger strike in May and in favor of ending the occupation of the Square by 31 May. My efforts failed, and so I left the Square on 30 May. I was not at Tiananmen Square when the massacre occurred. The order for arrests came on 12 June 1989, and I was captured at about 7:00 PM on 19 June in a park near the Baoding Railway Station. The interrogation, with a gun pointing at my temple, lasted the whole night. Since other people's railway tickets were found on me, I was forced to reveal their identities at gun point.


While under investigation without charge, I was in Beijing's Qincheng Prison from 19 June until the end of 1989. Three days before the pretrial, I was allowed to get a lawyer for this proceeding. My younger brother found me a lawyer, who met me once and insisted that he could defend me only if I pleaded guilty, not only of the charges against me but also of those against my companions. I asked for another lawyer, but this was denied.

During the pretrial, I refused to answer any questions and insisted on my innocence. The judge asked me to cooperate, so that he could at least document that I showed signs of repentance. The government desperately needed an acknowledgment of guilt from me in order to extract confessions from the others who were being tried separately.

My trial took place on 12 February 1991, and lasted a little over an hour. There were no witnesses, only "confessions," read by the court, from others who were accused. The evidence presented consisted of police records showing my presence at meetings where subversive views were allegedly aired by others present. I remained silent. The judge, advised by a joint committee of policemen, the prosecutor, and the court, declared me guilty of sedition with the intent to overthrow the government, and sentenced me to six years of imprisonment. Immediately after, I appealed to the Beijing High Court, which upheld the previous ruling without any hearing.


I remained in Beijing's Qincheng Prison in solitary confinement until April 1991. On 22 April, 13 of us, all political prisoners, arrived at the Linoyuan No. 2 Labor Camp in my home town, where we were to undergo thought reform. Political prisoners were supervised by common criminals, who made us memorize the "Fifty-eight Rules for Reforming the Behavior of Criminals." Every day, each of us would be asked to recite aloud any number of the rules, forward and backward. For each mistake you received one beating.

On 29 May 1991, our group refused to take the exam, resulting in a three-month "strict discipline," during which our hands and feet were cuffed. Our refusal to repent was met with "electric treatment" or "bench sitting." The "electric treatment" is beating by an electric rod which gives you a painful jolt at each strike. The "bench sitting" is to sit motionless on a 10-cm wide wooden bench for fourteen hours every day. The beatings and the cuffs caused bruises and inflammations, but no medical treatment was given to us unless you showed signs of dying. On 15 November 1991, we held a hunger strike, which led to another three-month "strict discipline."

The only time I thought of dying was when I was chained and cuffed with my hands behind my back. The twisting of my body gave me an excruciating headache. I wanted to dash my head against the wall, but I was watched and prevented from hurting myself. This punishment lasted three days and three nights. During most of the jail time, however, I felt peace within me. I knew I was right. I never gave up hope. Victory eventually belongs to righteousness.

The Right to Survive

The period of pre-trial detention was counted as part of the six-year sentence, so I was released from Lingyuan Labor Camp on 18 June 1995, and was delivered directly to my parents' home in Liaoyuan. A special police force was assigned to watch over me 24 hours per day. A searchlight illuminated our house at night. Our home was searched several times, without reason or search warrant. Sometimes our telephone went dead in the middle of a conversation. The Post and Telecommunication Office, which provides all telephone services, told us that they were instructed by the police not to do any repair work on our telephone. The Post Office refused to mail my letters.

Police harassment went beyond my immediate family. Two of my cousins were snatched into a police car, immediately after they visited us, and rushed to the police station, where they were stripped and detained for five hours. Friends whom I visited were taken to the police station and reprimanded for having me in their home. Even a taxi driver had to surrender his license after giving me a ride.

Of course, there were rules I had to obey. I had to report weekly to the police about my thoughts. I had to live in my parents' house. I was not allowed to be employed in any public or private work unit. To make a living, I tried to obtain a license for opening a small bookstore. After four months of resubmitting my application, each time with additional required information, my request was denied.

The police of Liaoyuan took away my basic human right to survive. I was told to take my complaints to the Ministry of Public Safety. To my surprise, I got out of Liaoyuan on about 9 April without being noticed. In Beijing, I was able to see some of my friends. After I submitted my complaints to the Ministry of Public Safety on about 20 April, I noticed that I was being followed. I narrowly escaped the police. It was apparent that I could no longer stay in Beijing or any other place in China.

Physics and Dissent

I have read biographies of great scientists like Einstein, Galileo, and Madame Curie. I found their search for truth inspiring, their personal integrity admirable, and their scientific accomplishments beautiful. I believe that their spirit is rooted in their discipline as physicists. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Science and Technology, I took the courses taught by Prof. Fang Li-zhi and was fascinated by the subjects and his teaching. He taught us how to question things. He was the most popular teacher in physics. Later, we called him "Sakharov of China."

There was a disproportionate number of physicists among the dissidents. As I mentioned earlier, almost all the student movements in Beijing were started by physics students. Six of the 21 most-wanted student leaders are physicists. This phenomenon can be explained. Under Communist rule, education has been controlled by Marxist, Leninist and Maoist doctrines, especially in the social sciences. Even mathematics had to be learned according to Marx's notes.

Among all the disciplines, physics is least controllable by Communist ideology. People with an inquiring mind naturally take up physics as their major in the universities. Human creativity in the search for truth requires freedom.


It was on National Day, 1 October 1992, when my younger sister told me that there was a letter from the United States on my behalf. In 1993, she told me there was a petition signed by American physicists for my release and a letter inviting me to the United States. In the same year, I was told that my teacher, Prof. Li Shuxian spoke at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and mentioned my case by name.

For awhile, I thought all that would lead to an early release. It didn't happen. However, I was treated much better after all the publicity. They stopped beating me. The police have some respect for scientists, and because so many scientists spoke out, they took this very seriously. Even the Chief Warden of No. 2 Labor Camp became afraid of me.

I am forever grateful to the efforts of CIFS, other human rights organizations, and caring individuals. Their letters and petitions gave me courage to survive and reduced police brutality to make my prison life more bearable.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin