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Chinese Human Rights Advocate Receives APS Sakharov Prize

Chenggang Xu (left) presents APS President Arthur Bienenstock (right) with a copy of the three-volume Chinese translation of Einstein's collected works
Photo courtesy William Greenblatt

At the ceremonial prize session at the APS April meeting, Chenggang Xu (left) presents APS President Arthur Bienenstock (right) with a copy of the three-volume Chinese translation of Einstein's collected works that was produced by his father, Sakharov Prize recipient Liangying Xu. Looking on is APS Associate Executive Officer Alan Chodos.
Physicist Liangying Xu has been awarded the 2008 Andrei Sakharov Prize by the APS for his efforts to promote human rights in China. Inspired by Albert Einstein, Xu has been a lifetime advocate for democracy, free speech, human rights, and academic freedom.

Xu’s son, Chenggang Xu, accepted the prize on his behalf at the April Meeting in St. Louis because Xu is in his eighties and not healthy enough to travel. At a session and press conference, Chenggang Xu described his father’s lifelong struggles to promote human rights despite persecution.

“Both Sakharov and my father followed the steps of Einstein, not only in physics but also in promoting human rights,” said Chenggang Xu. The Sakharov prize is named for the Soviet physicist, dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov.

Born in 1920, Liangying Xu was first inspired by Einstein’s views on democracy and human rights when he read Einstein’s essays in school. In 1939, Xu enrolled in Zhejiang University to study physics. Troubled by the plight of poor peasants he saw in the countryside, he joined the communist party. After completing his studies, Xu joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, where he has been a historian of science.

In 1957, Xu spoke up against Mao Zedong’s repressive government. He was then denounced as an “extreme rightist,” forced to divorce his wife, and banished to the countryside. He later reunited with his wife.

While in exile, Xu translated Einstein’s political, philosophical and scientific writings into Chinese.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards, considering Einstein’s work anti-Marxist, confiscated Xu’s translations and other writings. Xu did eventually get the translations back, and they were published beginning in 1975, as the Cultural Revolution was ending. Soon after, Xu rejoined the Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Throughout his life, Xu continued to advocate for human rights.  In 1981, he cited Einstein on the need for freedom of speech for scientific progress. Xu felt the government was not adequately supportive of basic science, and that more academic freedom was needed both for scientific progress and for human progress.

In 1989, astrophysicist Fang Lizhi wrote an open letter calling for the release of political prisoners. At the same time, Xu and friends wrote an open letter calling for democracy, protection of human rights, and free speech. The letter was signed by prominent dissidents, including many scientists. This and Fang’s letter served as inspiration to the students who gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protest against the Chinese government and to call for democratic reforms. (Xu did not attend the demonstration due to a recent heart attack.).

Xu continued to appeal for human rights, and has written several letters calling for democracy, civil rights, and protection of dissidents. These letters resulted in several periods of house arrest.

Xu is currently free to travel, but is old and sick. He and his wife are working on a long book on the history and theory of democracy.

In a press conference at this year’s April Meeting, Zuoyue Wang, a historian at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, a former student of Xu, talked about Einstein’s’ influence on Xu. The scientist’s sense of social responsibility inspired him. Einstein’s words, “The State is for the people, not the people for the State,” particularly impressed Xu.

It is especially appropriate that APS awards the Sakharov prize, said Wang, because “APS has been leading the fight for human rights.” APS was one of the first scientific organizations to take an interest in the freedom of scientists.

Xu’s son said that there are currently no restrictions on pure science in China, to his knowledge, but people in China do have to be careful about what they say and write. Most censorship in China is self censorship, he said.  

In response to a question about whether we should engage Chinese scientists or boycott them to protest China’s human rights violations, Chenggang Xu said he and his father encourage involvement. “Fighting for democracy and human rights is going to be long term,” he said. The best thing to do is educate and engage the Chinese people, Xu believes. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan