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Fang Lizhi, the physicist known widely in the 1980s as "China's Sakharov," was a mentor to the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After the crackdown, he fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he and his wife stayed for a year until they were spirited out of the country by the American authorities. Dr. Fang now teaches astronomical physics at the University of Arizona. He spoke on Tuesday morning with Global Viewpointeditor Nathan Gardels about the death of Communist reformer Zhao Ziyang and the future of democracy in China.

Nathan Gardels: Big public demonstrations erupted after the deaths of previous Communist reformers such as Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang. Why have there been no demonstrations after the death of Zhao Ziyang, the leader who refused to crack down on the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Fang Lizhi: Zhou Enlai died toward the end of the Cultural Revolution. The whole country, including many in the Communist Party, were fed up with Mao's excesses and those of his wife Jiang Qing's "Gang of Four." The loss of Zhou's moderating influence sent people into the streets to say,"Enough, we need a different course."

Though part of the system of Communist control, Hu Yaobang, in my view, was China's best leader in the 20th century. Though under one-party rule, China had never been more open than under his government. Discussion and dialogue abounded. Journalists exposed corruption. So when Hu died, there was a public outpouring of support for this new openness and against corruption.

Today, China remains under strict political control — much tighter than at the time of Hu — imposed after the purge of Zhao Ziyang just prior to the crackdown on students at Tiananmen in 1989. Intellectuals can't publish anything significant. There is no open discussion of major issues. Over the past 15 years, no independent movement of any kind — even the non-political Falun Gong sect — has been allowed to take root.

So, the quiet of students and intellectualsafter Zhao's death is not unexpected. It should not be surprising to find silence where no one can speak. The only noise is out in the countryside, where peasants and workers are protesting corruption, their disenfranchisement and poverty.

Students on China's main campuses today are very different than in 1989. Today, they actually like the Communist Party. This new generation has already forgotten Tiananmen. Most don't even know who Zhao Ziyang is. They want to make money, not democracy. For them, the Communist Party is a good thing because it offers the stability they need to get rich.

Gardels: For 15 years, dissidents have held out the hope that Zhao Ziyang's death would present the opportunity to "reverse the verdict" of Deng Xiaoping that the student movement was "counter-revolutionary" and "unpatriotic," thus putting China back on the course toward democracy.

That clearly is not about to happen. Has the verdict been "confirmed" then instead of "reversed"?

Fang: The verdict has been forgotten. Especially to the new generation in China, it just doesn't seem to matter anymore. They just want to be rich.

Gardels: Wen Jiabao, the current prime minister, was an aide to Zhao Ziyang. He was actually photographed standing next to Zhao when he warned students in 1989 that a crackdown was coming. What does it mean that even though there is a news blackout on Zhao's legacy, his protege is at the pinnacle of power?

Fang: Wen Jiabao was more of a secretary, a functionary, under Zhao than a protege. It is not clear to what extent he shared Zhao's views. In any case, today he remains a functionary of the Communist Party, which means he will obey the line of the Politburo that runs the country.

That policy is clear: Let Zhao's death pass as unnoticed as possible, and that is probably politically safe since the students of the new generation — historically the source of upheaval and protest in China — have forgotten him anyway.

Gardels: Where does all this leave the hope for democracy in China?

Fang: It makes me very disappointed. There was far greater hope — and interest — in democracy 15 years ago than today. Along with Zhao, democracy itself has been put under house arrest since 1989.

No doubt democracy will one day come to China. After all, it is the trend of world history, and China has embraced the world with a million connections through trade and commerce. But China is a very big country, and change is very, very slow on the political front. It will be a long time coming, and now, with Zhao's death, the "democratic spring" of 1989 is a long time gone.

Sidebar — Anonymous


There is a lot of vigilance in Beijing against any possible social unrest caused by Zhao Ziyang's death, but it is more because of the reaction from the foreign press than from the local citizens. In fact, the society I can see is remarkably calm and unperturbed. Politics appears very boring and detached from daily life. To put it another way, people are resigned. Tiananmen is too far behind, even to people like me who are most politically conscious. Also, the intelligentsia and politicians are divided in their views. China has changed too much since 1989! — a top scholar in Beijing who asked to remain anonymous because of the "sensitivity" of talking about Zhao's death openly.

Sidebar 2 — WEI JING SHENG


Wei Jing Sheng, once known as China's most famous political prisoner, was expelled to the United States under pressure from the Clinton administrationin November 1997, where he now lives in exile. He was first arrested in 1979 for posting a treatise on the "Democracy Wall"calling for the "fifth modernization" in China — democracy. Wei spent more than a decade in solitary confinement before his release.

By Wei Jing Sheng

NEW YORK — Why hasn't the death of Zhao Ziyang — the reformist leader who was purged by Deng Xiaoping because he refused to crack down on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — led to the kind of massive-scale protests that followed the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, Zhao's reformist predecessor?

We Chinese have to admit that within our culture and tradition there is a character trait which is close to cowardice. When people want to say something yet do not dare, they will use roundabout expressions. This is know popularly as "burying the corpse to catch the spirit" or "pointing at the mulberry bush to blame the sumac." Neither complete silence nor a loud explosion, this near cowardice is a middle way that at least offers the prospect of a peaceful resolution to some conflict or contradiction by not facing it head on.

This character trait accounts for the silence in these days after Zhao's death.

In 1976, on the Chinese Memorial Day following Zhou Enlai's death, the famous April 5thMovement developed on Tiananmen Square to call for change.

At that time no one thought about abolishing the Communist system, but only sought to get rid of some people inside of the Communist Party — namely the successors of Mao Zedong, led by his widow, Jiang Qing — and to support Deng Xiaoping's faction, which was against perpetuating the rule of Mao's clique.

The mainstream opinion of the Chinese was: "The communist system is good, but not Mao's policy. If we can get rid of Mao's policy, everything will turn out to be all right." The April 5th Movement was clearly not "counter-revolutionary" because it still saw the Communist Party as the hope of the future. Thus, soon after Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang came to power, this "wrongful verdict" of the Jiang Qing clique was overturned without must dissent within the Party.

In 1989, a big fight broke out in a meeting between Hu Yaobang and the conservatives within the Communist Party, triggering the heart attack that ultimately killed Hu. Because of this brave man's embrace of openness when in power, the democracy movement that was developing gained momentum, demanding an end to one-party dictatorship.

From the standpoint of the Party conservatives, this qualified the movement — culminating in the demonstrations on Tiananmen Square — as counter-revolutionary. Hu and his supporters thought they could follow the strategy of 1976 and "reform" without threatening the Communist system. But the aspirations of the people for freedom knocked that strategy off course because what they wanted — real democracy — couldn't be satisfied under Communist rule.

Despite the hope of many, including Zhao Ziyang, over the succeeding years, this "verdict" has never been reversed or overturned because to do sowould challenge the very legitimacy of Communist Party power and the system that surrounds it. Indeed, one of the only formal statements the Chinese government has made after Zhao's death is to affirm that the "verdict"against the Tiananmen student movement was "right."

The whole tragic episode smashed not just the confidence of the few, but also the little hope the whole society had left for the Chinese Communists.

The anxiety surrounding Zhao's death — soldiers, police and plainclothesagents have been dispatched to sensitive areas like Tiananmen Square — suggests that China's leaders now understand how vulnerable they are becoming, as they have left the people with only two extreme choices: either suffer in shame and silence or stop being afraid to risk their lives and livelihoods in a clash with the system — something happening every day in various scales and forms by peasants and workers throughout the country.

Thus, in these sad days, the Communist Party has not dared to try to twist the reputation of Zhao Ziyang in a way that might reflect well on its legitimacy. That would be digging its own grave deeper; people know too much for those kind of games to work anymore.

Indeed, that the Party hasn't done this demonstrates not just the authorities' sophisticated sense of public opinion but also their weakness. They can't acknowledge the role of a man who better understood the deepest aspirations of the Chinese people.

Both the Communist Party and the people they now control seem to share the same premonition: When the big wind comes and the big waves hit, the Party won't survive.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (Distributed 1/18/05)