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The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey…

The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the… (2016)

by Fang Lizhi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I confess, when receiving this book, part of me said “this is important, I must read it” and another part said “ummm will it be depressing?”

Well, it IS important but it was inspirational. Yes, Lizhi went through hell for his scientific beliefs but he never gets maudlin about it. He tells his story full of details and history of a China we do not know. He explains how he gets into trouble, but he owns his trouble, is proud of it even as he is being punished with backwards farming, or backbreaking mining. He seems to thrive on pointing out the flaws in Mao’s China. He never runs from the consequences and does his best to keep other, younger students from standing out as targets when all he really wants is to see China advance in the sciences.

This could almost pass for a novel, it is so full of passion, aftershocks, and all that a man can gain and lose from telling the truth. His writing and the translation are so down to earth, you wish you could sit on a porch and discuss any topic. He is a hero who never considered himself as such. Perhaps those are the only true heroes.

An advanced reader’s copy of this book was provided for an honest review. ( )
  catscritch | Oct 7, 2016 |
No one person has been responsible for spreading the idea of human rights in China, but much of the credit must go to the accidental dissident Fang Lizhi. An astrophysicist once known around the world as “China’s Sakharov,” in January 1989 Fang wrote an open letter to China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, calling for the release of all the country’s political prisoners. The letter became an inspiration to many of the students who later that year gathered in protest in Tiananmen Square. Today the West still remembers how that protest ended on June 4, 1989, yet Fang himself was the first to predict, correctly, that the massacre would soon be forgotten in China. Its memory, and the memory of Fang himself, would be diligently suppressed by Beijing.

The English translation of Fang’s memoir, The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey From Scientist to Enemy of the State, is an important reminder of both the man and the massacre. First published in Taiwan in 2013, this even-tempered, clear-eyed and darkly witty account of postrevolutionary China has been made more widely accessible by Fang’s friend and translator, the Princeton professor emeritus Perry Link.

Two days after the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protesters, Mr. Fang was smuggled into the U.S. embassy in Beijing. This book was written during the ensuing 13 months of seclusion, before Fang was finally flown into exile, first to Cambridge, and than on to the United States and positions at Princeton and then the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he lived until his death in 2012.

Fang stood accused by Beijing of “counterrevolutionary incitement” and was labeled “the biggest black hand behind the June Fourth riots.” But while he would express his support for the students whenever he was asked, he never once visited Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests. The book offers no new details of the bloodbath, but instead provides an account of a life that had something in the nature of a Greek tragedy: unavoidable circumstances, combined with a flaw in a key figure’s character, that lead inexorably to conflict.

Fang had no choice but to deal with reality and to “seek truth from facts” in the skeptical manner required of all scientists. This inevitably brought him into conflict with the Communist Party’s flawed determination to be right by choice, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

The denouement was Fang’s appearance as a handy scapegoat for a government unwilling to admit that its own corruption, inflexibility and incompetence were the causes of the student protests.

Born in 1936, just a year before the Japanese occupation of Beijing, by high school Fang was a member of an underground Communist student organization. “This was the place,” he recalled, “where I had made two of the most basic choices in my life: physics and Communism.”

But the two could not coexist. The one required the questioning and testing of hypotheses, the use of evidence and reason to build proof. The other required the uncritical and absolute acceptance of shibboleths. “No one who understands physics can turn around and accept a claim that Marxism-Leninism is special wisdom that trumps everything else,” writes Fang. Nevertheless, he was set to work on the design of a nuclear reactor that could make plutonium for weapons, and later became the youngest-ever appointee to China’s Academy of Sciences.

But soon he fell afoul of the authorities following Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged carefully circumscribed criticisms of the Party. When Fang’s plan to co-author a helpful letter to the leadership suggesting improvements to the work of the Party and its Youth League in particular, he was sent down to the countryside, the first of four times he would have to endure such punishment over the years.

In more than 20 years, Fang was only able to spend three months living normally at the same address as his wife and children.

But he complains little. Instead, Fang writes that what he learned from the peasants and workers was the opposite of what the Party intended. They had no interest in class hatred or his label as a “rightist,” but only in his ability to pull his own weight. He made friends.

“When we sent-down intellectuals suddenly appeared, the farmers could not have cared less about orur overall worldviews or ultimate concerns. It didn’t even occur to them to ask about such things, let alone offer ‘criticism’ or ‘struggle.’”

On a subsequent banishment the Party made Fang a miner. But this only turned his thoughts to the heavens and ultimately led him to an interest in astrophysics, setting him on a path that would guarantee him further conflict with the Party.

“What power, I asked myself, could rival the one that governs the heavenly bodies in their timeless movements and at the same time dispel the depression of a lonely physicist as he sits at the bottom of a mine waiting for quitting time?”

When Fang published China’s first discussion of an expanding universe, a notion that was anathema to Communist thought, he was denounced again. The ensuing attempt to ban modern cosmology in China convinced Fang that the Party was immune to reason and evidence.

“The ideological dictatorships of modern socialism and the medieval church had several things in common. They both saw themselves as authorities on cosmology; both adopted an outmoded cosmology as their unchallengeable model; and both used the tools of tyranny to block scientific progress. This helped me to understand that the problem with Communist rule over science was not just those tools of tyranny themselves but an ideology that in its very nature is opposed to the conditions that science requires: free inquity, a spirit of skepticism, and reliance on evidence.”

The Party’s suppression of sound science spurred Fang to speak publicly in favor of academic freedom, the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Despite being written nearly 30 years ago, Fang’s memoir offers vital context in which to understand a rapidly changing modern China.

Fang cannot be dismissed as an outsider, an ignorant foreigner or an exaggerator. He refreshes memories of brutality and ignorance that the Communist Party and its apologists would much rather were forgotten.
  peternh | May 5, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Written during his asylum/captivity at the US Embassy in Beijing following a warrant issued by the Chinese government for his and his wife's arrest shortly after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. While he did not play a direct role in the students' protest, he laid the foundation for their dissident behavior: demanding the rights in their constitution and having open discussions on improving their society/government. Joining the communist party early (when it was still underground), he spent most of his life formally expelled. Eventually his technical/theoretical training as a scientist and his numerous re-education assignments convinced him that the operation of the Party is not internally consistent (its professed ideals are substantively absent from its practices) nor does it represent China's best interest. His interest in cosmology (ignited by a forced stint in a coal mine), placed him in direct opposition to Marxist dogma and on a path toward international admiration and official national denouncement. Fascinating account of disillusionment and the insane degree of upheaval to the general population caused by the communist dynasty in China. ( )
  dandelionroots | Mar 31, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Part personal history. Part political memoir. Very good read; but a little meandering. Probably fascinating for anyone interested in China or Chinese politics. I was a little startled to realize this only covers Fang Lizhi's life in China. Perry Link writes an afterword about the man's life in the US.

**This was an advanced reader copy won through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.** ( )
  lesmel | Mar 21, 2016 |
A fascinating memoir of a Chinese scientist, whose life vividly displays the ups and downs of life under in Communist China. Growing up during World War II and coming of age as Mao Zedong rose to power, Fang Lizhi quickly found his passion for science at odds with Marxist dogma. Things didn't come to a head until the late 1980s, however, when Deng Xiaoping viewed him as a traitor and the political tension surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests propeled Fang Lizhi to seek asylum in the US embassy. Well-written and at times even humorous, this memoir is highly recommended to anyone interested in Chinese history of the last century. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Feb 28, 2016 |
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"A long-awaited memoir by the celebrated physicist whose clashes with the Chinese regime helped inspired the Tiananmen Square protests describes how in spite of his scientific contributions he was sentenced to hard labor for decades and eventually sought asylum from the U.S., "--NoveList.… (more)

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