The Most Wanted Man in China, My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State

The Most Wanted Man in China

By Fang Lizhi | New York, Holt, 2016

Reviewed by Irving A. Lerch
The intellectuals will accomplish nothing if they fail to integrate themselves with the workers and peasants. In the final analysis, the dividing line between revolutionary intellectuals and non-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary intellectuals is whether or not they are willing to integrate themselves with the workers and peasants and actually do so.” —Mao Zedong2
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”—Confucius, The Analects3

Four years after his death, one of the most important figures of the Chinese scientific establishment, Fang Lizhi, has given us a first-person account of growing to maturity and eminence in revolutionary China. The Most Wanted Man in China is the memoir and personal testament of a remarkable man, written during his internment in the US Beijing embassy after his flight from the authorities at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, June 3-4, 1989. He remained confined in the embassy until his expulsion, June 25, 1990. A renowned scientist, humane scholar, political activist, intractable enemy of authoritarian government and courageous advocate of human rights, this journal, written in the interior rooms of the American embassy as his world vanished outside, tells a grim tale with humor as well as deep introspection. Inevitably this memoir will be compared to Andrei Sakharov’s published in 19904 since Fang often has been called the Chinese Sakharov. But there are important differences which we must explore to overcome our Euro-centric predilections.

There are two ways to experience the emotional substratum of history. One way is to immerse a fictional character in the miasma of events in order to invoke a human dimension of the past. The other is for participants to bear witness. Among the many authors of both historical fiction and memoir, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn opened a deep psychic wound in the Soviet body politic to indict a decrepit political system in, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.5 A decade later, Solzhenitsyn would follow this “fictional” work with The Gulag Archipelago—a vast collection of factual reports that created an indelible image of political repression.6 To understand, to feel history, we must have truth—whether it be scribed in fiction or recounted in a ledger.

We have not had an equivalent body of writing to emerge from China with the exception of a few “rags-to-riches” memoirs of officials once denounced and pushed to the margins who later emerged as political heavyweights and a few dissidents who have heroically escaped and stepped forward to tell their personal stories of survival. Fang’s memoir now fills an important deficit in our understanding of the monumental events that convulsed 20th century China.

One theme that pervades all accounts of the arduous journey from child of the revolution to enemy of the state is that early on, the individual becomes a true believer, a dedicated follower. Alternatively, a survival reflex conditions the person to “lay low” and follow a path of least resistance. In Fang’s case, and that of his wife, Li Shuxian, whose childhoods were spent during World War II under Japanese occupation, they were made acutely aware of foreign—Japanese and Western—imperialist designs on China. It was ordained that nationalism and the struggle for independence would bring them into the Communist fold. This was not widely different from the experiences of Sakharov who, as a young student and weapons scientist, was in thrall of Stalin’s Communism at a time of great trauma during the war.

Dictators like Stalin and Mao seek to construct a regime enclosed in ideology that forces every actor into a niche within a political infrastructure. Behavior inside the infrastructure must comport with an absolute set of rules. The Mao quotation at the beginning of this review was selected to emphasize this as the starting point for Fang’s story.

Fang’s recollection of his parents, especially of his mother, is telling:
She went to high school—a bold move for a woman in her day—and told me that during the Northern Expedition in 1926,7 she and some female classmates took to the streets chanting slogans like “Down with the foreign powers and out with the warlords!” If the guiding principle of my father’s philosophy was “Stay the same no matter what happens to you,” my mother’s principle was “Watch what happens and make a difference.”

Ultimately, he would adhere to both his parents’ admonishments. Central Beijing, where Fang was born after his family relocated from Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), remained relatively calm during the turbulence of the Japanese invasion and the post-war Chinese Civil War. As modern China began its spastic condensation into a modern state, the violence and turmoil of war and revolution did nothing to dislocate Fang and his elders and siblings from their nationalist sentiments.

Fang was free to attend school during the Japanese occupation—the only wrinkle being forced study of Japanese, relieved with the pranks and expressions of disrespect by children in quiet rebellion. Eventually the Japanese presence evaporated to be replaced by the Kuomintang (KMT) administration under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. This era was essentially apolitical for Fang except for the resurgent nationalism that brought Chinese culture—suppressed by the Japanese occupiers—back to the classroom.

Fang’s transmogrification to political awareness in the late 1940s coincided with the gradual political and military disintegration of the KMT and the rise of Mao’s forces:
The tide turned toward the Communists on the ideological battlefield even before it did on the physical battlefields. Almost all the intellectuals and college students became sympathizers, supporters, or even worshippers of Communism …The energy in their sympathies came much less from the discovery of a new truth than from a wish to jettison a moribund regime.

The increasing desperation of the KMT authorities to suppress this incipient rebellion in the schools and universities led to violence that further alienated students and the intellectual communities. By 1948, the young Fang had made the plunge and defying KMT authorities, secretly joined a Communist front, the Federation of Democratic Youth.

Fang’s memoir is not a simple linear account with way-signs imprinted on a calendar. He moves between historical narrative to consequential incidents in his and Li’s later life. This non-linear approach is powerful in that the extraordinary brutality of events intrudes into life in ways that make living itself a daring achievement.

For the young Fang and Li, the future blossomed with Li’s elevation to the Communist Party and a position of leadership and Fang’s appointment to research in nuclear physics—an elite specialty marked by the government for its military and energy implications. Yet within a few years of Fang’s graduation from Peking University in 1956, he and Li would be expelled from their Eden in the wake of Mao’s “Anti-Rightist” crusade (1957-59). Fang was sent to work in the agricultural fields of rural China. In fact, over the next two decades, Fang would be banished to the countryside and enforced labor on four different occasions (excluding assignments to factories and workshops). Why? Why would a gifted scientist, recruited into the most secret brotherhood of science to work on defense projects vital to the government, be exiled, his studies and work seriously, perhaps fatally, interrupted?

The immediate, superficial answer seems to have been a campaign by the authorities to punish Peking University students and faculty for giving haven to “rightist” sentiment. Fang may have been targeted for the simple act of collaborating with friends in drafting a letter to Party Central criticizing the Communist Party—criticism invited by the Party to address shortcomings but which in reality was designed to identify potential dissidents.

However, the deeper answer to this question resides in history, the nature of governing, and in the bones and sinew of authoritarian dictatorship.

Early in his memoir, Fang provides an historical foreshadowing that would imperil the intellectual enterprises of China, and he reaches back 2,000 years to tell the tale:
In the first century B.C., Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty founded an imperial academy …The school grew steadily until, a century later, its students numbered as many as thirty thousand and a number of mature scholars were emerging from it. The students grew more and more independent and offered ever more criticisms of the social order and the dynasty’s rule until the emperor, unready to see ferment that might affect imperial power, repressed the students in what came to be known as the Calamity of the Proscription of Parties…No later dynasty ever tried to open another school of its kind.

Thus, as ordained in millennia past, Fang and Li found themselves in the maw of an intellectual enterprise that Mao and his minions were committed to controlling.

For 2500 years, the intellectual life of China was increasingly dominated by Confucian thought which steadily developed from a scholarly cult into a kind of state theology that subsumed the education of bureaucrats and government officials. Yet in his lifetime, Confucius was never elevated to a position of authority despite the tributes of princes and emperors.8 Each succeeding governmental epoch was faced with a conundrum: how to train and employ the specialists and technocrats needed to run the state without fomenting critical dissent and independent thinking—the ineluctable outcome of education and creativity? Mao’s solution was to discredit Confucius but he was never able to root out Confucianism.

Modern dictatorships—wholly dependent on science, technology, and the professions—have answered this overarching question by instituting an executive, extra-judicial structure of intimidation and force. Representative democracies have also sought to reduce, even eliminate, criticisms from their intellectual establishments—but with little lasting effect.

Mao and his henchmen instituted a system, at the beginning of their rule, of marginalizing intellectuals and their institutions to prevent them emerging as alternative centers of thought and leadership. The systemic intimidation of teachers and students counted on early conditioning that promoted their acquiescence and support—coming as it did after the Japanese occupation and ultimate collapse of Kuomintang governance. The Korean War was used as a maul against workers and intellectuals alike to consolidate Communist power at a critical time, much as anti-Communist witch hunts convulsed the industrial democracies. The enlisting of Chinese intellectuals in their own suppression was so successful that none could emerge as heroic figures capable of capturing public sentiment or leadership.

While at Peking University, the students were harangued by the university’s Party Secretary. Fang recorded this worthy’s more pithy remarks during a meeting:
He said that the question “What kind of people should our education produce?” needed no further discussion because the Party’s policy on education had already answered it with perfect clarity. There was no need for “independent thinking” because Marx, Lenin, Mao and the Communist Party had already thought so well on behalf of the people that there was no possible way to do any better.

Had it stopped at this, little would have come of it since the absurdity of such a declaration was evident on its face. But Fang would soon learn that party proscriptions would extend into the kinds of science that were permitted.

The USSR under first Lenin then Stalin did not have the luxury of this approach although it was exploited before and during WWII with disastrous results. Stalin’s embrace of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko who had promoted the crackpot theory that environmental manipulation controls heritable biological function—an attractive theory to a political system that was convinced that ultimately the worlds of men and nature could be controlled by political will—led to the destruction of Soviet biology and agronomy along with a generation of biologists and agronomists. It wasn’t until the decades after the war that Lysenkoism was quietly discredited.9

As a more advanced industrial society with a mature political apparatus, the USSR’s institutions and intellectual/scientific communities played an active role in Soviet society. Whereas before the war, Stalin could and did brutally suppress all potential dissent, reaching into the universities and the academy, his focus was on the military and government apparatchiks whom he culled with mindless efficiency. The Soviet effort to discourage the study of modern physics, chemistry and biology in adherence with Marxist principles; foundered on the shoals of reality. After the war, with the rapid enlistment of the quantitative sciences in the defense establishment, Stalin lost his opportunity. He had to promote talent in his effort to catch up to the West and this allowed physicists like Sakharov, Kurchatov, Tamm and others to become, quite literally, “heroes of the revolution.” Mao, on the other hand, knew that all he needed were faceless technicians to build his bomb and defense establishment. And whereas the USSR could throw dissidents like the physicist Yuri Orlov into the Gulag for daring to promote the Helsinki Accords, they did not dare to do more than banish Sakharov to internal exile.

In his forward, Professor Perry Link observes that Fang is not so much a Chinese Sakharov as a Chinese Galileo. But it is important to recall that pope Urban VIII, a former friend of Galileo, was enraged by Galileo’s portrayal of him as a kind of simpleton in the Dialogues.10 In this sense, Fang was very much a Galileo to Mao and his successor Chinese communist “popes.” Fang’s use of humor in his public pronouncements indeed makes him Galileo’s legatee.

Perry also reports on Fang’s sense that there was a “double standard” in US policy when dealing with human rights issues in China and the Soviet Union. I don’t see this as a criticism on Fang’s part, merely a truthful observation. The social/historical/cultural association of US and USSR society made this inevitable. Many leaders of the US intellectual community—especially Jews—had a fierce attachment to the dissidents and “refusenicks” in Russia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a danger of loss of scientific and engineering institutional integrity throughout the emerging republics. The insolvency of government funded programs threatened the financial and physical well-being of the entire scientific enterprise and the very real prospect arose that weapons scientists and technicians might be forced to market their expertise abroad. Senators Nunn and Lugar had sponsored legislation to develop programs to meet this threat but the House was slow to react and provide funding. It was up to the scientific community to find the means, through private donations, foundations and existing government programs to develop support for scientists in the former Soviet republics—primarily Russia and Ukraine. These programs were ultimately successful but the US scientific community was totally consumed in this effort.11

Nonetheless, after the dispersion of the Chinese intelligentsia during the Cultural Revolution, the US physics community in partnership with institutions around the country embarked on a program to salvage Chinese scientific talent by bringing them to US laboratories and universities to engage in modern research (Chinese-American Cooperative Research Program).12 This program was in effect from 1983 to 1991, when it was suspended in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre.

Pre-dating the physics community initiative the eminent Chinese-American Nobel laureate, Tsung-Dao Lee, conceived and promoted the China-U.S. Physics Examination and Application program (CUSPEA) to bring Chinese graduate students to the US. This program was initiated in 1979 and suspended in 1989.13 Nonetheless, these programs had enormous impact on the course of Chinese science and Chinese-American scientific relations.

Despite repeated banishments to the countryside for hard labor in the fields, somehow Fang maintained his equilibrium and managed to pursue physics studies. One reason for his extraordinary balance was undoubtedly his ability to frame his experiences and see the humor in what most of us would consider a personal disaster. In the 1980s, after being permitted to travel to attend scientific conferences, he recounts how he was telling friends of his numerous excursions to work in the fields. One colleague said, “You mean field theory right? Field theory.”

But more important, was his determination to turn every trial into a positive experience, every experience into a reflection on his own humanity. During his reeducation assignment working the Xiesan coal mines on Bagong Mountain, he noted the response of miners to banners demanding greater productivity:
Down below they still worked their three hours and then sat down to wait for quitting time. …As I sat there in the darkness with the miners, musing on all this, one of them said quietly, “Sixty cents of pay buys sixty cents of work.”

Fang’s stuttered schedule of science-reeducation-science-reeducation (sometimes in the fields, sometimes in factories or mines) his mind gradually turned to the heavens and astrophysics. He had been forced to abandoned nuclear physics and then lasers. But now the core of his scientific personality was stirred by the vast precincts of space and relativity physics.

He faced intractable obstacles. There was a scarcity of current literature in the academic libraries and the authorities insisted on defining appropriate fields of inquiry. If Marx or Engels did not declare a discipline as appropriate, it was proscribed. Cosmology was one such banned area as were many important texts on relativity and quantum theory.

In addition to these problems, Li and Fang were raising a family from which Fang was often removed.

Chinese physics journals were abandoned in 1966 as the Cultural Revolution devastated science and did not resume publication until 1972. By then, Fang was entering a productive period and had been able to submit an article on cosmology for publication.14 Unfortunately the authorities took notice and hastened to slam the door so importunely opened. Among the criticisms levied against the subject, one is redolent with unintended humor:
The model of an expanding universe “seeks to establish that the capitalist system not only cannot be overcome but will continue indefinitely to expand.”

In 1958, Fang had been assigned to a new institution, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) where he remained until the beginning of 1987—28 years. But after the convulsion and dislocations of the “Anti-Rightist” campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the authorities ordered the removal of USTC to Hefei, evidently to “purify” Beijing of its “rightist” elements. This forced the faculty to rebuild an institution afresh, with meager resources. By 1973, USTC was growing rapidly into a premier institution and Fang, despite official displeasure, was able to help found a small research group in cosmology (with the help of officials unwilling to look too deeply into the hearts and minds of the faculty).

By 1979, Fang was restored to full membership in the Communist Party and in 1984 he was elevated to Vice President of USTC. He was elected to the Academy of Sciences and received invitations and permission to travel to address scientific meetings in Europe and the US. Fang was moving to the front of the queue. So it seemed.

Fang did not have to wait long to be engulfed in another altercation with the regime. At the Fourth Marcel Grossmann15 meeting held at the Vatican, the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics (ICRA) was organized and Fang, as USTC’s “financial vice president” lost no time in enlisting his institution. It was an important coup for Chinese science. Not only was USTC a founding member of a prestigious international program, but it would benefit further with the gift of a telescope.

A cloud of poisonous suspicion rose from Beijing that eventually enveloped the telescope and USTC membership in the ICRA and would eventually engulf Fang.

In his memoir, Fang notes: “Student movements can be seen as society’s temperature regulators. If you solve the problem that is causing them, they will settle down on their own.” Thus begins Fang’s description of the events, beginning in 1985, that would lead four years later to the Tiananmen Massacre and his final exile.

Despite the regime’s continuing hostility to modern cosmology, the proceedings of the 124th Symposium of the International Astronomical Union, was permitted to be organized in Beijing, August 25-30, 1986. The subject was observational cosmology. This would be Fang’s final hurrah. By December, USTC students had taken to the streets, demanding democratic elections to the district council—essentially calling for an end to the Communist Party’s diktat. The authorities yielded and opened the nominating process for elected seats in accordance with the law. This ignited new fervor and even wider agitation to expand democratic prerogatives.

Fang and a few of his colleagues tried to dampen the students’ ardor and sought out gatherings in an attempt to counsel caution. It was to no avail. By the beginning of 1987, Premier Deng Xiaoping had ordered Fang’s expulsion from the Party and both he and USTC President, Guan Weiyan, were fired. The remaining months before the explosive events of spring, 1989, were calm, if strained. Fang was permitted to function in his scientific duties but was pressured to conform and return to the fold.

In the winter of 1989, Fang wrote a letter to Deng noting that the year marked the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC and the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. He concluded:
In order to capture the spirit of these occasions in the best possible way, I sincerely propose that you announce a general amnesty specifically to include all political prisoners…
*   *   *   *   *   *  
This year will also mark the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, whose ideals of freedom, equality, fraternity, and human rights have been gaining ever more respect in the world. So I again express my earnest hope that you will consider my proposal, as a way to demonstrate ever greater concern for our future.

This letter would be cited by the authorities as a principal cause of the student demonstrations (“riot” in the regime’s official argot) leading to the massacre in Tiananmen Square, June 3-4.

Events moved quickly as the turmoil in Beijing spread. Friends helped spirit Fang and Li to the American Embassy where they would live for the next 13 months until the two governments worked out an exit from the impasse. It must be noted that the translator of this memoir, Professor Perry Link, played an important role in publicizing Fang’s letter to Deng and later in assuring Fang’s and Li’s safe exit to the American Embassy. This gave him unique access to Fang and Li and to their thoughts at this historic time.

Fang continued his fight for human rights in the US and pursued his scientific interests as a professor and theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His death 4 years ago at the age of 76 deprived the world of an eloquent voice in the advocacy of human rights. His expulsion from China, allowed that voice to be heard around the world. n


1. Fang Lizhi, The Most Wanted Man in China, My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State, translated by Perry Link, Henry Holt and Company, February 2016. An abstract of this review was first published in Science, February 2016.

2. Mao Zedong, “The May 4th Movement,” Article appeared in newspapers in Yenan to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the May 4th Movement, May 1939.

3. Legge, James, trans. (1861). Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. The Chinese Classics I. London: Trübner. Revised second edition (1893), Oxford: Clarendon Press, reprinted by Cosimo in 2006.

4. Sakharov, Andrei, Memoirs, Richard Lourie, Trans., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990.

5. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963.

6. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., Thomas P. Whitney, Trans., The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Harper and Rowe, 1973, Vol. I-II, 1974, Vol. III-IV.

7. Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist military campaign, led by Chiang Kai-shek, from 1926-28 to wrest control of Northern China from warlords.

8. Schuman, Michael, Confucius: And the World He Created, Basic Books, 2015

9. Soyfer, Valery N., Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

10. Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632, Translated by Stillman Drake, Annotated and Condensed by S. E. Sciortino:

11. Sustaining Excellence in Science and Engineering in the Former Soviet Union, Report of a Conference on February 9, 1993, convened by Frank Press, National Academy of Sciences, Richard Getzinger, American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Moore, George Mason University, George Soros, International Science Foundation; Direct Aid, Irving A. Lerch, the American Physical Society, Infrastructural Issues, Gerson Sher, the National Science Foundation, Global Scientific Heritage, Robert Hoffmann, the Smithsonian Institution; National Academy Press, 1993.

12. APS China Program. American Coordinating Committee, American Physical Society, Chinese-American cooperative basic research program in atomic, molecular and condensed matter physics of the American Physical Society, 1983-1991 : final report of the American Coordinating Committee, [United States] : American Coordinating Committee, 1991.

13. also New York University Archives, Series III: China-U.S. Physics Examination and Application (CUSPEA) Program, 1980-1987 and Richard B. Freeman, Daniel L. Goroff, eds, Science and Engineering Careers in the United States: An Analysis of Markets and Employment, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

14. Fang had already amassed a distinguished bibliography of articles in other fields of physics despite his difficulties with the authorities—difficulties that led to efforts to expunge his name from publications or replace his name with a pseudonym.

15. Grossmann, Marcell, April 9, 1978 (September 7, 1936), Hungarian mathematician, friend of Einstein, innovator of non-Euclidian geometry essential to the modern formulation of Relativity Theory

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.