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May 25, 2017

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Even in death, Fang Lizhi's calls for Chinese political reform resonate strongly

At a time when many people in mainland China are preoccupied with "getting rich quickly" and enjoying their newly found wealth thanks to Deng Xiaoping's bold economic reform and opening-up in 1978, perhaps only a few, if any, are interested in Premier Wen Jiabao's call for political reform. The call, however, inevitably evokes an eerie sense of deja vu: prominent Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, who died April 6 in the United States, championed the cause alone in mid-1980s that led to his exile after the violent crackdown on democracy protests at Tiananmen in June, 1989.

Fang Lizhi is often called "China's Sakharov" because he and the late Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate had a lot in common: both were world-class physicists and human rights activists. Andrei Sakharov was lauded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as "a spokesman for the conscience of mankind" for his anti-nuclear weapons crusade. He was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, an honor he was not allowed to receive in person. Fang Lizhi, on the other hand, while without such an international aura, contributed no less for awakening Chinese students in the 1980s with his bold and lonely call for democracy, free speech and creativity, spawning a "Tiananmen Generation" of activists that included writer Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. But Liu is a political prisoner, serving an 11-year term for "inciting to subvert state power."

Fang was lucky, in a sense, to avoid incarceration thanks to a brief political thaw and "early spring" that descended on China when reform-minded Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were promoted by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in mid-1980s to head the party and government, respectively. Fang's outspokenness and boldness in expressing his political views and liberal ideology had surprised many westerners.

"Fang's fearlessness appeared deeply rooted in his personality," Orville Schell (夏偉), an eminent American journalist and China hand who once studied Chinese language at National Taiwan University, wrote in an article for the Atlantic Monthly in 1988. In the article, headlined "Fang Lizhi: China's Andrei Sakharov," Schell said he was struck not only by Fang's "good cheer and guilelessness," but also his "forthrightness in publicly saying what he believed," without regard for his own future.

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