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

Image of The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State
Release Date: 
February 9, 2016
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

The Most Wanted Man in China is Fang Lizhi’s memoir, written in 1989 but not published until now, four years after his death.

Fang is first and foremost a physicist. He is also a Chinese political dissident. In Perry Link’s prologue, the reader will discover that Fang did not start out as a dissident—as a young graduate student Fang is recruited to work on the Chinese Atomic Bomb and years later is appointed to the Chinese Academy of Science, and then vice principal of China’s University of Science and Technology (USTC).

Fang Lizhi is an unlikely candidate to get into trouble. Over the years Fang becomes disillusioned with Communism. In 1986 Fang Lizhi begins talking to his students about “Universal Rights,” and by 1989 is forced into exile. Perry Link’s prologue builds up what this reviewer (an unabashed cynic), considers “unrealizable expectations.” However, in the reading, Perry’s hyperbole is not hyperbole! Fang’s life story truly is amazing.

Fang has a gentle voice and sense of humor that tends toward irony. A reader can easily imagine the person behind the translation. In his memoir, Fang neatly creates a thread of storyline, digresses, then rejoins the thread, tying different strands of stories together.

Fang uses the introduction to introduce himself. He is concealed inside the U.S. embassy grounds in Beijing in 1989, charged by the authorities with “carrying out counter revolutionary propaganda and incitement.” Outside the embassy, police are patrolling 24 hours a day with orders to arrest him and his wife. Fang begins to write his memoirs, this book, as politicians and ambassadors negotiate his release.

Fang points out significant events in Chinese nationalism, from ancient history through the late 1940s with China’s last Civil War between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Here Wikipedia may be a useful tool for readers who are unfamiliar with Chinese history.

His story properly begins with his childhood. The reader hears in Fang a natural born storyteller, and learns as backstory a little bit about Chinese culture and history. The pages go fast. Fang depicts the land, the architecture, the people, family, and the value Chinese culture places on scholarship.

One of the interesting facts of Chinese culture is the importance of family birthplace. Note the difference between having a birthplace and the place where your people are from. These are not necessarily the same thing. Even today birth documents list “native place,” and native place takes cultural preference over birthplace on Chinese passports.

Fang provides his memories of Beijing in the early 1940s with sights, sounds, and smells. Fang is only one year old when Beijing was invaded by Japan, so his boyhood is in occupied Beijing. He is young to understand the war, and luckily Beijing is not treated like Nanking.

Fang builds his first radio out of salvaged parts bought with lunch money. His interest changes from radio to physics, and he enters Peking University where he changes his field of study from theoretical physics to nuclear physics. He contributes to the manufacture of China’s first nuclear bomb. A difference he notes between the Chinese and American atom bomb programs was China had a lack of calculating machines. In the early 1950s, Chinese physicists still used the abacus for calculations.

Fang notes that early on “there was no conflict between physics and Communism, the two were tight partners.” The tight partners are soon to part ways. Fang points out that physics takes skepticism as a virtue, while Communism asks for unquestioning belief. Fang writes, “No course in a physics department is more counterrevolutionary than Physics 1.”

Historically, even though the Chinese value education, their political view of universities, from the time of the emperors to Mao, is abysmal. University graduates are considered troublemakers, and university professors are not to be trusted. Fang muses over the possible reasons modern science did not emerge from China on its own, noting that authoritarian societies are anti-science as scientist’s truths are not necessarily ruler’s truths.

Fang works at the University of Science and Technology (USTC) from 1958 to 1987, starting out as a teaching assistant—his duties at USTC are constantly interrupted by politics. “From the 1950s to the 1970s I was sent from physics study to farms four different times.”

The first time Fang is expelled from the Communist Party is during a period of openness that is pretext for a “rightist purge.“ He is caught after drafting a letter of criticism that is never sent. At this stage in his life, Fang considers farm work a romantic challenge but his description is anything but romantic. At his first send down, Fang describes digging a village well by hand—in the winter—in frozen ground.

Fang’s recounting has no small amount of irony.

On return to USTC in 1961 his first scientific paper has to be published under a pseudonym because of having been “sent down.” Politics continue intruding into the universities. Fang notes that 1961 was the same year the famine started. Chinese farm policies starve between 20 and 40 million Chinese to death.

Fang switches his field of study from theoretical physics first to solid-state physics, then to laser physics, and publishes four papers in 1964. He is about to be sent back to the farm in 1965 though his second send down is canceled at the last minute by the vice president of USTC, with help from the USTC Communist Party secretary. At this point, Fang admits to being more cynical.

On June 1, 1966, the first day of the Cultural Revolution, all university classes are canceled throughout China. Science laboratories are closed. Science journals are closed. Libraries are closed. All remained closed through 1967 and 1968. The USTC campus has mobs of Red Guards patrolling wearing helmets and carrying clubs.

Fang gives up on the Chinese leadership at this point and finds his disbelief liberating. Fang tells the reader that he has found it personally difficult to explain to Americans the craziness of the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed education for one generation and part of another. By the end of the Cultural Revolution illiteracy in China reached 30%.

During the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards have free rides on the railroads, food too was free if you said, “Chairman Mao beckons us to the future.” People take advantage of tourism by pretending to be members. Fang travels China by rail with his friends and family as “Combat Brigade 7.” However on his first trip the crowd at the railway station is so densely packed that he and his family accidentally gets on the wrong train and cannot extract themselves before it leaves the station. Disappointingly he travels to a city he has visited before.

At first Fang is a bystander in the Cultural Revolution and not a target—despite his earlier send down. Fang is initially ignored by the Red Guards he is labeled a “rightist,” and the Red Guards are told to not go after “rightists.” Then the Red Guards are told to go after “rightists.”

Fang is held in a dormitory. He has three roommates, all lecturers in physics. He says of his detention, “The four of us could still talk physics, so daily life wasn’t entirely terrible.” By 1969 there are 400 detainees at USTC. That winter there are ten suicides. Fang is then sent to work on the railroads. Railway construction does not stop during the Cultural Revolution.

Fang is forced to live apart from his family nearly a year before he sees his second son. In 1969 China is under a false threat of war with Russia, and his wife, who is working at Peking University, is forced to leave Beijing. Fang is again separated from his wife—this time for years. USTC is also ordered to leave its environs but cannot find a temporary home. Fang says that no city trusted hosting USTC after Mao curses the universities.

USTC moves to Anhui in 1970, and his wife is transferred back to Beijing in 1971. Fang does not move to Anhui with the university but instead is sent to dig coal in a nearby mine for reeducation. At this point, Fang states, “I began to doubt Marxism itself . . . why did theory and reality diverge so?” He finds the coal miners to be not “politically” minded; they are more concerned about wages. Their pay is low—so too was the coal miners’ efforts, and one miner telling him, “Sixty cents of pay buys sixty cents of work.”

In 1970 the Red Guards turn on the university students, especially those who are in the Red Guards in the early stages. This causes a new round of suicides. After 1970 USTC moves from Anhui to Hefei and restarts there. At Hefei, Fang becomes a brick maker with other disgraced professors. The bricks are for the new buildings of the university.

Fang describes his work, his colleagues’ political crimes, and what happens to his colleagues years later. “People like us were known to the authorities as ‘old oil oxen;’ ‘old’ because we’d seen it all, so were not easily frightened; ‘oil’ because using extreme tactics on us was about as effective as using a knife to cut oil; and ‘oxen’ because trying to use ideological persuasion on us was like singing to a cow.”

Fang was allowed to teach physics after Lin Bao dies. Lin Bao is Mao’s “closest comrade in arms,” who becomes a “traitor” as the Cultural Revolution fades. Fang is sent to work at a camera factory in Beijing. The surprise this time is that he is sent there to solve an actual physics problem in manufacturing.

While in Beijing he has access to research institutes and specialized science archives, and writes his first paper on modern cosmology—the first paper on modern cosmology to come out of China. This paper causes a host of new troubles—not intentionally, he says—by looking at the heavens he thought he would be avoiding politics.

Why was cosmology of all things politically incorrect? Fang tries to understand the attack on his paper, noting that the physics journal it is published in would have at most 100 readers, all physicists. Why would a paper on cosmology anger the Chinese Communist Party? China, after a spat with the USSR, removes all references to cosmology from its textbooks. What happens next? Look up “The Streisand Effect” in Wikipedia. Interest on cosmology picks up after the attack as it is politically correct to read the texts that are going to be denounced, and conferences are conducted under the banner of denunciation. In a few years, the field of cosmology becomes legitimate. When USTC opens for classes in 1976, the Astrophysics section receives its first-ever budget and uses the money to buy a calculator.

With Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution ends and cosmology becomes part of the modernization that follows, and at a conference on cosmology in 1977, Fang is comfortable enough to publically criticize Marxism, telling the audience, “Engel’s concept of the universe, in my view, is out of date.” Against all odds, Fang’s status improves.

He is invited to rejoin the Communist Party and promoted to full professor. He receives his first invitation to attend a physics conference in Germany (though his wife is not allowed to accompany him). Fang is invited to more international conferences, and his wife is allowed to travel. In 1981 Fang is inducted into the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the highest honor a Chinese scientist can receive. Also in that year Fang hosts an international conference in China.

Fang describes his fall from grace with the Chinese Communist Party leadership, which is closer to a rollercoaster ride than a direct fall. The beginning of the end is 1985 when he starts talking to the press about political reform. In December 1986 he tries to dissuade USTS students from taking a rights protest off campus and fails, but luckily no one gets hurt.

Student protests are ongoing in China across 156 campuses in 29 cities, and the students become combative. The next USTC demonstration is held in support of demonstrations held by Shanshai students, and Fang is able to defuse the situation. He receives a commendation from the local authorities, but the central authorities are alarmed. Fang claims that the student protests that led to Tiananmen Square were not caused by his speeches—though he does not improve his case by telling the students, “Democracy is not a gift bestowed by higher-ups.”

On December 30, Deng Xiaoping, the Premier of China demands Fang be expelled from the Communist Party. Fang after expulsion is sent to the Beijing Observatory, which is actually a good thing as Fang is reunited with his wife after living apart for 19 years.

“Party Central” also produces a half-million copies of a 200-page book of his speeches, meant to denounce him but instead making him famous by spreading his ideas throughout China. When the Communist Party finally this figures out, they try to retrieve the books, but it is too late, copies are already on the black market.

Then things get really interesting. . . .

[The reviewer’s allotment of words has been shamelessly squandered. The reviewer will be sent to Disney World for reeducation. Readers of this review, for the glorious future, must acquire and learn the lessons of The Most Wanted Man in China. —NYJB Party Central]