Exiled Chinese Physicist Fang Lizhi Dies

When Fang Lizhi died at 76 on 6 April in Tucson, Arizona, most obituaries focused on his role as a champion of freedom, human rights, and democracy in China. Less has been said about his accomplishments as an astrophysicist and one of the youngest scientists elected to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

Based on his work on astronomy and astrophysics, Fang was elected at age 44 to CAS's Division of Mathematics and Physics in 1980, when CAS began admitting new members after a 23-year hiatus. Fang began his career as a physics lecturer in 1958 at the then-newly established University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Beijing. Despite many interruptions to his academic career—including compulsory labor on farms and in a coal mine during the Cultural Revolution—Fang kept abreast of modern astronomy and resumed publishing academic papers in 1976. Fang's career culminated in 1984, when he was appointed vice president of USTC, which had moved to Hefei in 1970.

In the 1980s, Fang's writings and speeches calling for political reform and extolling universal human rights inspired many students, but he and they paid a high price. In 1987, Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, himself ordered Fang's removal as USTC vice president and expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party. The government later labeled Fang a "black hand" behind student demonstrations that ended in a bloody crackdown in June 1989. As tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, Fang and his wife took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After a year of negotiations, they were allowed to leave China, ostensibly for medical treatment, and in 1992 Fang joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He continued to play an important role from abroad in the development of astrophysics in China, according to colleagues. Fang was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2010 for "his important work in cosmology and early-universe physics; his inspiring leadership, teaching and mentoring of students in China, the United States and around the world; and his tireless, selfless, courageous and continuing advocacy of human rights in China."

Fang's CAS membership was revoked in 1990. After his expulsion, CAS revised its bylaws, adding a rule specifying that a member can be expelled "when an academician's personal behavior violates the country's laws, harms national interests, or violates scientific ethics and academician standards." This rule has yet to be applied to anybody.

In a statement, the University of Arizona called Fang's passing "a profound loss" for the university community. Chinese official news has been silent, and censors in China are busy removing any mention of Fang's death in blogs and other online comments.