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China likes science but not scientists, says Fang Li Zhi

STANFORD -- Political climate has determined the advancement and acceptance of science in China for the past four centuries, according to Fang Li Zhi, a leading Chinese astrophysicist and advocate of democracy.

Fang discussed "Science, Cosmology and Democracy in China" on Wednesday, May 15, before a standing-room-only audience of more than 300 in Stanford University's Physics Lecture Hall.

For example, one major Chinese science journal published no articles on scientific research during the 1966-74 Cultural Revolution.

In the 17th century, Fang said, the acceptance of modern astronomical theory in China depended on the views of the emperor at the time. One emperor supported modern theory; 10 years later, the next emperor rejected modern theory and put five astronomers to death.

"China likes science," Fang said, "but it doesn't like scientists."

China's leadership doesn't like Fang. A well-known critic of communism and the repression of intellectual freedom, he was twice expelled from the Communist Party. After he was accused of being one of the leaders of the spring 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, Fang and his wife, Li Shu Xian, took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. They came to the United States in June 1990.

Since then, Fang has been a visiting professor with the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and a guest professor at Cambridge University.

In China, Fang experienced the effect of politics on science. An article on cosmology he was to have published in a Chinese science journal went into limbo after the 1989 demonstrations "because my name was on it -- and my name was also on the most wanted list." The article was published a year later, but only under the names of Fang's students, he said.

Why would science, and cosmology in particular, be of such concern to the government?

"Maybe because cosmology opens your mind," Fang said, "and it's easier then to challenge authority. If people are more educated, they're more likely to want more freedom."

According to Fang, education is kept a very low priority in China for that reason.

Although the 1989 democracy demonstrations are the freshest in the world's memory, the Chinese have been pushing for freedom since 1919, when the first pro-democracy movement began. Its slogan, he said, was "democracy and science."

"Their cause yesterday is still our cause today," Fang said. "It truly is a dream that will never die."

That first movement has been followed by seven more.

"We want to become a democratized country," Fang said. "Chinese people know that without democracy, China will not be able to become a real part of the modernized world."

Since the crackdown after the 1989 demonstrations, "the potential energy of the pro-democracy movement is still there, it's just waiting," he said.

Now that communism has lost its grip in Eastern Europe and is crippled in the Soviet Union, Fang firmly believes China is next.

"I was educated in the peak time of communism," he said, "and we were often told that China can only be saved by communists. After the Tiananmen Massacre, a Chinese authority gave a speech and that's what he said."

At that speech, however, a student in the audience wrote a note to the lecturer, Fang said. The note read: "Sir, you are wrong. Communists can only be saved by China."



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