BEIJING (AP) — Fang Lizhi, one of China’s best-known dissidents whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, has died in the United States, where he fled after China’s 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. He was 76.
Once China’s leading astrophysicist, Fang and his wife hid in the U.S. Embassy for 13 months after the crackdown. In exile, he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Fang’s wife, Li Shuxian, confirmed to The Associated Press in Beijing that Fang died Friday morning in Tucson.
Fang inspired a generation, said his friend and fellow U.S.-based exiled dissident Wang Dan, who announced the death on Facebook and Twitter.
“I hope the Chinese people will never forget that there was once a thinker like Fang Lizhi. He inspired the ’89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy,” Wang wrote. “One day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi.”
“Fang is my spiritual teacher, his death is a major blow to me. At this moment, my grief is beyond words,” Wang wrote.
The son of a postal clerk in Hangzhou, Fang was admitted to Beijing University in 1952, at age 16, to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. He became one of China’s pioneer researchers in laser theory.
He burst into political prominence during pro-democracy student demonstrations of 1986-8 when he became China’s most outspoken and eloquent proponent of democratic reform.
Authorities alleged his speeches to students at the University of Science and Technology, where he was vice president, incited unrest.
Fang was expelled from the Communist Party and fired from his university post. But he refused to be silenced and he received letters of support from across the country almost daily.
After the June 4, 1989, military crackdown that crushed the seven-week pro-democracy movement, Fang and his wife fled into the U.S. Embassy. Fang and Li had both been named in Chinese warrants that could have carried death sentences upon conviction. American diplomats refused to turn them over to Chinese authorities.
China’s decision to allow the couple to leave the country a year later eliminated a major obstacle to bettering China-U.S. relations, which had deteriorated badly after the crackdown, which left hundreds and perhaps thousands dead.
Fang had been a professor in Tucson for about 20 years, said his colleague, physics Prof. Elliott Cheu. His academic focus was theoretical astrophysics and cosmology, the study of the universe’s origin. He chatted about his pro-democracy background at cocktail parties, but Cheu mainly knew him as a physicist.
“It was always kind of fun to interact with him, he always had some very interesting problems that he would bring to bear,” Cheu said. “Basically meaning, he was thinking. Even at this stage of his career he was fairly well versed in physics and really understood the material and had a deep understanding of how things worked — which is kind of the mark of a real physicist.
“So even though his fame, I guess, has been because of his pro-democracy work in China, I would say his career has also been very successful on the physics side. He’s had quite an impact, not just him, but his students also have continued to be productive.”
Because Fang had been sick last semester, Cheu had planned to teach a course this spring that was usually taught by Fang. But Fang returned to work, and was teaching this semester.
A statement from the University of Arizona said that Fang’s death represented “a profound loss” for the university community.
“Fang Lizhi was a man of extraordinary courage and conviction, and a scholar of the highest caliber,” the statement said. “We are thankful that he elected to join our faculty two decades ago, and his contributions will be remembered for decades to come.”
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to his report.
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