Acceptance Speech of the Andrei Sakharov Prize

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great honor to be awarded the Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society. Since I cannot take travel due to health reasons, I have asked my son Dr. Xu Chenggang to accept the Prize on my behalf.

Andrei Sakharov is a scientist for whom I have the highest respect. Albert Einstein, the scientist whom Sakharov most respected throughout his life, has also been my model since I was very young. In 1934, when I was fourteen years old, I dreamed of becoming a scientist like Einstein. As an 18-year-old, before starting college I read the collection of his writings entitled “The World as I See It.” This made me start to ponder upon different values and ways of life. Two years later, as a college sophomore, because of the intolerable political corruption and social darkness in China at that time, I embraced the Marxist theory of violent revolution and proletarian dictatorship and determined to devote my life to the Chinese revolution. The revolution was victorious in 1949. After some twists and turns, in 1956 I eventually began research into the fields of the philosophy and history of scientific thought in which I was interested.

In 1957, because of my open objection to the “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” I was categorized as an “extreme rightist” and thus became a victim of the revolutionary dictatorship. After that campaign, I stayed in my hometown working as a peasant for twenty years.

In 1962, during the contest between Mao Zedong and Khrushchev over the leadership of the International Communist Movement, in an attempt to make China the center of the theory of revolution, Mao asked relevant experts to collect and translate anti-Marxist works in the international intellectual community for criticism,. Naturally, Albert Einstein was their first target. I took on with pleasure the task of compiling and translating the thoughts of Einstein that were assigned to me. I went to Beijing and borrowed all of the relevant literature that could be found and then I returned to my hometown where I read, compiled, and translated day and night. I am grateful to the help of four friends, two of whom became embroiled in my case and were also categorized as “rightists” in 1957.

After working for 14 years, we completed the translation and compilation of three volumes entitled “A Collection of Works by Albert Einstein” and they were published successively in 1976 and 1979. This collection, which contains 410 documents, represented the most comprehensive collection of Einstein’s thoughts at the time. It is also regarded as a pioneer in China’s new democracy enlightenment movement. In this collection, the beliefs in democracy, freedom, and human rights that Einstein fought for all his life directly challenged the official ideology of the Communist totalitarian regime. Actually, it is due to the enlightenment of Einstein’s thoughts that Fang Lizhi and I started thinking about the democratization of China. In 1954, in his address accepting Award of the Decalogue Society of Chicago, Einstein said: “In long intervals I expressed opinions on public issues whenever they appeared to me to be so bad and unfortunate that silence would have made me feel guilty of complicity.” This spirit will inspire me forever.

The publication of “A Collection of Works by Albert Einstein” not only had an impact on the Chinese intellectual community, but also attracted the attention of Hu Yaobang, the leader of the new generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders. Hu Yaobang recommended this book to Chinese Communist Youth League cadres and to cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1978, I returned to the Institute for the History of Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and continued my research into the history of modern and contemporary science, the history of scientific thought, and Albert Einstein. In February 1980, the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee was reestablished and Hu Yaobang was appointed the General Secretary of the party. He immediately asked the Chinese Academy of Sciences to arrange for lectures on science and technology to be given to the Secretariat and the leaders of the State Council. The first lecture was on the history of science. In the draft of the manuscript that was mainly prepared by me, I emphasized the following: “Science and democracy are the engine of a modern society and critical for the development of a modern country.” Thereafter, I published an article entitled “On the Social Function of Science and Democracy” to illustrate and justify this statement.

In 1985, together with Li Peishan, an historian of biology, I edited and published “A History of Science and Technology in the 20th Century.” In a section of the concluding remarks, I discussed the role of democracy and academic freedom in the prosperity of science. In December 1986, this section was republished in the People’s Daily. It both echoed and was echoed by the voices of the thriving student movements at that time. One month before that, to boost the progress of the reform, together with Fang Lizhi, and Liu Binyan I initiated the planning of a conference for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign. Unfortunately, the authorities did not allow us to hold the conference. Fang and Liu were expelled from the party by Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang was forced to step down for “not having done a good job in the “anti-bourgeois liberalization” campaign. As a result of these events, I no longer had any illusions about the Communist Party and I no longer believed in Marxism. At the National Conference on Modernization held in November 1988, I proposed that Karl Marx’s greatest mistake was that he advocated dictatorship rather than democracy, which opposed the trend of human civilization.

From fall 1988 to spring 1989, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement and the 200th Anniversary of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, I published 5 papers to elucidate the idea of democracy and to criticize anti-democratic trends, such as the theory that there was no rush to democratize and the new authoritarianism, that were officially supported by the regime. In January and February 1989, 42 people, most of whom were accomplished scientists and two of whom were famous writers, signed a letter advocating democracy in China. I initiated this movement together with my friend the glaciologist Shi Yafeng. Our letter argued that democracy would guarantee the success of the economic reform and prevent corruption, and we called for the protection of civil rights and the release of all of those who had been imprisoned because of their ideas. This was the first time in Chinese history that so many scientists together openly expressed their political ideas.

In April 1989, Hu Yaobang passed away. His death and the injustice he had suffered stimulated an unprecedented student movement protesting the corruption and advocating democracy. Eventually, the movement was violently suppressed by Deng Xiaoping on the eve of June 4th. Chinese history was turned back many tens of years.

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping traveled to the south of China to give talks that advocated continuing the economic reform. In contrast to the acclaim of the domestic and foreign media, I published an article entitled “The Reform Cannot Succeed without Democracy,” in which I pointed out that “if human beings are economic animals, if the growth of productivity is the only index of social progress, then it is Nazi Germany rather than the four Asian tigers that is worthy of our applause,” and the people should acclaim ‘Heil Hitler!’” Furthermore, I wrote that “What he [Hitler] advocated was also socialism (Nazism).”

In 1993, I published a survey on the history of democracy entitled “The Concept of Human Rights and the Modern Theory of Democracy,” pointing out that the concept of human rights is premised on and a foundation for the modern theory of democracy.

In applying to host the Olympic Games, the authorities released some political prisoners in succession. In 1994, after the application was unsuccessful, the authorities again put many dissidents into prison. Together with six other intellectuals, I submitted a petition calling for an improvement in the human rights situation in China. In our petition, we quoted that “the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments” (as first stated in the “Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen”) and we appealed to the authorities to “bravely end China’s history of punishing people for their ideas, speeches, and writings.”

The year of 1995 was the United Nations Year of Tolerance. I drafted a petition “Saluting the Year of Tolerance and Appealing for Tolerance in China,” in which I demonstrated that although historically tolerance symbolizes human civilization, there had been lack of tolerance in China ever since ancient times. We appealed to the authorities to end their hostility to those who have independent thoughts, to reevaluate the decision on the June 4th movement, and to release all those imprisoned for the ideas, speeches, and beliefs. At first, a total of 45 people signed the petition. In particular, my mentor Wang Ganchang, a leading nuclear physicist in China, was very pleased to sign it and his name headed the list of signatories. Later, this petition was signed by many famous people throughout the world and within a month over one thousand people, 10 of whom are Nobel Laureates, had signed it.

To our surprise, however, the appeal for tolerance was denigrated by an American physicist who sought to flatter Deng Xiaoping. He wrote a letter to Prof. Wang Ganchang, threatening that the petition “was harmful to the Chinese people” and “was a serious and unfortunate event.” He succeeded in frightening Prof. Wang who then responded in an inexplicable manner. His response was published in the Hong Kong media, seriously damaging Prof. Wang’s reputation. Therefore I had to publicly clarify the truth and expose the shameless conduct of this American physicist. I compared his actions to those of P. Lenard and J. Stark, the German physicists who threw themselves onto the lap of Adolf Hitler half a century ago.

Because of its authoritarian tradition, China’s way to democracy will be long and tough. Enlightenment is the first stage, to make the foundations of a modern civilization, such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and law, become the common sense of our society. A first step is to enlighten the intellectuals themselves and to erase the impact of the totalitarian ideology on them. Since 1985, to promote a democratic enlightenment, my wife Wang Laidi, an expert on Chinese modern history, and I have been writing a book on the history and theory of democracy. This book is a semi-narrative interspersed with comments. It aims to project both academic values and the popularization of democracy. Since our knowledge of the social and political history of the Western world was limited and sometimes mistaken, we had to read a huge amount of literature before beginning our writing. In addition, our old age, poor eyesight, weak memories, and interruptions from various everyday issues have slowed down our progress.

We have just finished the period before the founding of the United States. Nevertheless, we are determined to complete this work so as to make a contribution to China’s democracy, freedom, and human rights.

Thank you!

The author Liangying Xu would like to acknowledge Nancy Hearst of Harvard University for editing the translated speech.