China, a Chinese friend once said, is a nation of "skin-savers." He was trying to explain why his countrymen and women appeared to submit so compliantly to abuse from the Communist Party. "People hate the party," he said, his voice heavy with a quiet despair at his own instincts of self-preservation. "They hate what the party does. But we are all skin-savers. Saving our skins means bowing our heads when the emperor passes."
Last week, Fang Lizhi, China's leading astrophysicist, was forced from his homeland because he did not bow his head. He has never been a skin-saver.
Other voices of Chinese dissent argued not with the party's right to rule but with its methods. But Fang stood apart--denouncing Marxism, Leninism and its Maoist variants. Even at the height of last year's Tian An Men Square protests, student leaders petitioned the party, urging moderation and tolerance; Fang recognized that democratic rights entailed nothing less than the demise of the Chinese Communist Party.
Fang first captured the attention of China's students and intelligentsia in fall, 1986, with a series of lectures. In these speeches, he outlined his critique of the party and his conviction that only a democratic system could save China.
Cassette tapes of his talks were circulated with a passion not seen for a decade. Fang's eminence in Chinese and international scientific circles accorded him legitimacy. His views inspired the first of many student protests that winter. Though quashed by the weather and verbal intimidation, these protests led to the ouster of the party's chief, Hu Yaobang, for supposedly fostering a climate of political dissent. China's intellectuals, including Fang, fell silent.
But the veil of repression had lifted and Fang, despite expulsion from the party, resumed his attacks. Students and intellectuals, testing the limits of renewed liberalization, listened to Fang. But they listened as well to other voices: the sounds of cultural iconoclasm, of new music and poetry, of new social attitudes, of free discussion.
The protests on Tian An Men Square embodied many of these voices--Fang's was but one. On the square last June, questions about Fang were usually met with expressions of admiration, followed by, "but he's the older generation." Still, after the massacre, among those the government held responsible was Fang. Escaping a dragnet, he and his wife, the physicist Li Shuxian, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy.
Now, just a little more than a year after the bloodshed, China's leaders have acquiesced to U.S. entreaties. Fang was allowed to leave China to take a research appointment in Cambridge, England. The price of his exit was an attempt to restrict his public criticism. This is no act of leniency--as the Chinese government pretended, or a significant step in resuming its place among civilized nations--as the Bush Administration implies. Fang's departure is something far different.
China's economy has declined steadily. Only infusions of hard currency can forestall further deterioration. Standing in the wings, with billions of dollars, are the Japanese and the World Bank. They only await the nod from George Bush. In Zhongnanhai, the former imperial compound where China's leaders work and live, it seemed that releasing Fang would invite that nod. Although the loans were needed long before now, the geriatric, hard-line leadership in Beijing refused to let it appear that they relented in the face of international opprobrium. They waited until after the June 4 anniversary of the Tian An Men massacre.
Moreover, Bush had persevered in his determination not to penalize the regime by unconditionally renewing China's status as a most-favored-nation trading partner. Releasing Fang, the Chinese leadership concluded, rewarded their friend in the White House and eliminated the most visible obstacle to renewed international financial largesse. Most important, China's leaders did not have to ease their political crackdown--thousands remain in prison, tyranny of intellectuals continues, free discussion remains banned, private entrepreneurs remain hounded, propaganda campaigns flourish.
It was a painless exercise for the leadership. As they look abroad, surveying the dissident diaspora, China's leaders must be aware of the fragmentation of the opposition movement, the factions that have sprung up around exiled democratic leaders. Fang's release into this pool of sparring egos, the leadership surely reasoned, could only exacerbate dissident disunity. But just in case, the leadership wrung from Fang an ambiguous promise to "refuse to participate in all contrary activities whose motive lies in opposing China."
For Fang, the promise is easily kept. His claim as a Chinese patriot is unassailable; he simply defines his love of China as walking with his head erect. He has, after all, never opposed China. For the Chinese leadership, however, the need to extract a pledge of this sort reveals their own vulnerability. The effort to still Fang's voice betrays not confidence but fear, not strength but frailty. It will be Fang's voice, not that of Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, that the world will hear in the years to come.