China’s most famous dissident, Fang Lizhi, spoke out in Los Angeles on Tuesday, accusing his homeland’s government of trying to obscure the prosecution of pro-democracy activists by hastily conducting their trials while the world’s attention is riveted on the Persian Gulf War.
Fang, a physicist who has been compared to the late Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, said that the timing of the trials, and the government’s refusal to allow international observers to witness the proceedings, shows the communist regime’s continuing callousness toward human rights.
“China is taking advantage of the crisis in the Persian Gulf to intensify their pressure on dissidents inside China and some students,” he said.
China considers the dissidents to be an “internal problem,” so they can refuse to allow international observers at the trials, he said.
Fang’s remarks were made Tuesday night to an overflow crowd of about 1,000 Chinese students and Chinese-Americans gathered at UCLA’s student union. The event--his first public appearance on the West Coast since coming to the United States earlier this month--was sponsored by Human Rights Watch, an international group that monitors human rights abuses, and various UCLA organizations.
Following the Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, the 54-year-old physicist and his wife, Li Shuxian, sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and remained there for more than a year. The Chinese government allowed them to leave last June in an apparent effort to help lift Western economic sanctions against China.
Fang said Tuesday that he believed there is still great potential for change in China. But he added that the trials of the pro-democracy demonstrators showed that the government has not relaxed its repression of the movement.
Since Jan. 5, the Chinese government has prosecuted at least 18 pro-democracy activists on a variety of charges, including anti-government subversion and trying to overthrow the communist system.
Several protesters have been sentenced to prison terms of two to four years. The punishment could be far harsher for those branded by the government as the “black hands” behind the demonstrations, such as Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, two intellectuals charged with sedition. They could face long prison terms or death if convicted.
Fang, who this month assumed a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has been hailed by many as the spiritual heart of the democracy movement because of his bold and tireless campaign over the years against China’s leadership.
The dissident told the audience that a physics textbook he co-authored with his wife has been banned in China.
“We should have freedom of scientific research,” he said. “But even that, a very low level of human rights, has also met with trouble in China.”
At a press conference earlier in the day, Fang said that failure to challenge human rights abuses in China now could have long-term effects on the world.
“If a government doesn’t honor human rights in its internal affairs, then it will do violations in international affairs,” he said. “Iraq is evidence.”
Fang urged his audience to not just focus on their studies or their careers. Citing Albert Einstein, he said: “To remain silent in the face of evil is to be an accomplice.”
Among those who heard Fang’s speech, the respect for the physicist is unbridled.
“He’s a fighter for human rights rather than a politician . . . (or) a chief of any organization. He’s quite independent,” said Wang Chao-hua of Los Angeles, who, as one of the student leaders in Tian An Men Square, is on China’s 21-most-wanted list.
“So many Chinese people just believe he’s the consciousness, the soul, of justice and human rights in China,” she said.
Hsing Li-Chung, 72, of Taiwan, who is visiting his daughter in Monterey Park, was thrilled to see Fang, whom he called “the leader for freedom” on the mainland. He said that the younger student leaders of the pro-democracy movement were “hotblooded, because they’re young, but Dr. Fang is mature, . . . his opinion is objective.
“He’s the leader in spirit.”