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The year 1989 in Beijing opened chilly and white, with a soft, clean snowfall. Who could guess that within just a few months it would be the scene of cataclysm—or that blood, flesh, and death would replace the falling snow?
It almost seems fated that my first paper of 1989 was about explosions— supernovae in particular. Until then I hadn’t really worked much on supernovae, but the appearance of Supernova 1987A had turned the flaming stars into a hot topic. Not just astronomers but other scientists, too, and even the general public, suddenly found them fascinating, and we astrophysicists were flooded with requests to explain them. After a bit of homework, I did my best to respond.
Today supernova explosions are viewed as purely astronomical phenomena. In ancient China, though, as we know from records two thousand years old, they were taken as signs of human events and were valued for their predictive power. Usually they meant nothing good.
There had been about eight or nine spectacular supernova explosions during those two thousand years. One of them, in the year 1006, is described in historical records as shining, at its peak intensity, half as brightly as the moon and giving enough light to read a book by. These spectacular outbursts were always taken to be predictive of some kind of great military or natural disaster—or perhaps the death of an emperor. All the records show, too, that the predictions were never wrong. For example, the official astrological reading of the supernova explosion of 1054 was “heavenly ruler expires”—and, sure enough, the next year the Xing Zong emperor of Liao died. This was a coincidence, of course, but the careful recording of the details (after the fact) shows how important supernova explosions were taken to be. When they were sighted, it was the job of the officials in charge of divination to memorialize the emperor and to urge him to announce a “general amnesty” as a way to induce heaven to soften the impending disaster, whatever it might be, and to bless the state with continued prosperity.
In 1989 I was working at the Beijing Observatory, the modern successor of the imperial institution whose charge had been to scour the heavens, keep the calendar, and divine the future. By now, of course, we astronomers had no formal duties to prognosticate for political rulers, but we felt we did have a duty—and a right—to be concerned for the future of our society. This may be why, as I was writing my piece on supernova explosions, that ancient tradition of “general amnesty” floated into my mind. Was not China today, in fact, very much in need of such a thing?
The arrival of the new year made the point seem more obvious, and a few simple questions occurred to me with a sudden new clarity. Why drag old fights into a new year? Why can’t people be a bit more conciliatory, more tolerant, more ready for amnesty? Why is it that we set aside our differences and wish one another the best only on a few holidays during the year, while on all the other days we are constantly at one another’s throats?
And what was the reason for holding in prison, for long periods of time, exhausted people who were no threat what ever to society? Was this only to show the power of the rulers? How can it be that people who claim to lead the world’s most advanced human society turn out to be less magnanimous than the emperors of a thousand years ago, who could “benefit the world” by granting amnesties?
These questions were on my mind after I finished my article on supernovae, and I wrote the following letter to Deng Xiaoping:
Central Military Commission
Chairman Deng Xiaoping:
This year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the founding of our nation and the seventieth of the May Fourth Movement. There undoubtedly will be many commemorative activities. But compared with remembering the past, people might be even more concerned about the present and the future.
In order to capture the spirit of these occasions in the best possible way, I sincerely propose that you announce a general amnesty, specifically to include all political prisoners such as Wei Jingsheng, on our nation’s fortieth anniversary. Whatever one might say about Wei Jingsheng, to release someone like him, who has already served ten years in prison, would show a humanitarian spirit.
This year will also mark the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, whose ideals of freedom, equality, fraternity, and human rights have been gaining ever more respect in the world. So I again express my earnest hope that you will consider my proposal, as a way to demonstrate even greater concern for our future.
Sincerely, and with best wishes,
January 6, 1989
I wrote the words “Deng Xiaoping, Party Central, Beijing” on an envelope, put the letter into it, and deposited it in a public mailbox outside the Beijing Observatory about noon on January 6. It later became what the authorities called “the letter that led to the Beijing riot.”
When I mailed it I had no expectation that anything would result. The fate of most letters to top leaders—which arrive in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, each day—is to sink into silent oblivion, perhaps without even being read. Chinese leaders never answer letters from commoners (except when, in well-selected cases, they publish an exchange in order to spread a certain message). Certified letters mailed “return receipt requested” do not bring receipts. I was a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and my letters to the president of the Academy had never received any acknowledgment; so why should I expect one from Deng Xiaoping?
Still, I felt it likely that Deng would at least notice my letter, if not answer it. For better or worse, I was one of the people he “cared about.”
The next day, January 7, two guests came to my home, and their visits made it considerably more likely that my letter would get noticed by the addressee. The first guest was Liu Da, the open-minded former Party secretary at USTC, who followed the practice of “opening one eye and closing the other.” Liu read my letter (I had saved a handwritten copy) and expressed his strong approval. “Yes,” he kept saying, “yes, those people should be released.” He said he would make sure the letter reached Party Central. He had once been a member of the Party’s Central Advisory Committee, and he had ways to be sure that letters got delivered.
The other guest was Professor Perry Link, a new friend. Link ran the office of the American Committee on Scholarly Communication with China and had arrived in Beijing shortly before the Mid- Autumn Festival in 1988. He studied Chinese literature, was an editor of the Chinese magazine Eastern Miscellany, and had asked me, a few weeks earlier, if I would contribute to it. Now I gave him an essay and gave him, as well, a copy of my letter to Deng, which he said he would translate and release to the international press. When he did this, the letter turned into an open letter, all the more difficult for the addressee to ignore.
I later learned that Deng Xiaoping did indeed read it. True to form, though, he gave no sign of having done so: no acknowledgment, no response.
Then, during the recess for the Chinese New Year, some of my colleagues in the Chinese Academy of Sciences began discussing whether they should write their own letter to Party Central about amnesty for prisoners of conscience. My old friend Professor Xu Liangying in the Institute for History of Science headed the effort, and the eventual result was a letter signed by more than forty natural scientists and social scientists.
After that some young writers and poets—Bei Dao, Lao Mu, and others—came to visit me. They, too, were thinking about making a call for amnesty. I gave them a copy of my open letter, and on February 13 they drafted one of their own. It called for releasing political prisoners and was addressed to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Three days later they made their letter public. Thirty-three prominent people in cultural fields had signed.
An ancient Chinese proverb says “Things stop at three.” And sure enough, three open letters was enough for the authorities. They began to show signs of unease. The first salvo came from the Ministry of Justice, whose formal complaint was that writing public letters about prisoners compromises the independence of China’s judiciary. (This made it clear, at least, that citizens of the “People’s Republic” did not have the right to write such letters.) The next step by the authorities was to find the people who had signed the open letters and, one by one, give them “education”—or “reeducation.” Some were offered sweet talk (“This is not in your best interests”), while others were issued warnings or put under surveillance. The authorities viewed me as a major “instigator” of all that had happened, but for now, anyway, they did not put me in the category of people to “talk to.”
The public calls for amnesty had failed in their immediate objective. But the fact that they caused such nervousness shows that “dissidence” had grown into an epidemic that the authorities could not easily be rid of. The regime’s absolute power was declining.
Just as this new dissidence was unfolding, a new American president, George H. W. Bush, came to China for a visit. The U.S. government had already had quite a bit of experience with dissidence in the Soviet Union, but apparently had no ready guidelines about how to deal with it in China. The American president had to decide whether to treat Soviet and Chinese human rights in the same way, thereby risking offense to the Chinese government, or, for now, to apply different standards, sidestepping China’s human rights issues and preserving the “old friend” relationship between the governments that Bush himself had helped to establish during his stint as chief of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing in 1974-75. It was obviously a dilemma.
In the nick of time, the president’s brain trust thought up a way to serve both ends at once: invite some Chinese dissidents to attend the president’s farewell banquet in Beijing. In Western culture, awkward topics could be avoided at such an occasion even as it functioned as ceremony. As the Americans saw it, inviting Chinese leaders and Chinese dissidents to the same dinner party could be seen as expressing the president’s concern for Chinese human rights and, simultaneously, as doing no harm to the formal authority of Chinese leaders. It seemed a brilliant middle road.
This was the background for a White House invitation, hand-delivered to my wife, Li Shuxian, and me by the American embassy, to attend the president’s farewell banquet on February 26. It was to be a Texas-style barbecue at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel. We later learned that five hundred guests had been invited, which meant that even if we had been there, we would have constituted only about 0.4 percent of the group. The president’s brain trust probably made this calculation.
However correct numerically, the calculation was wrong in theory. The brain trust forgot (or perhaps never knew) about the Chinese tradition of political banqueting. Chinese history teems with stories of grand political banquets that mark weighty historical events. The contrast with the West is sharp. Peking opera is full of political banquets— not so for Shakespeare’s plays. Every time Peking opera comes to the line “Let there be wine and feast!” you know that the climax is around the corner.
So how could ancient, magnificent, splendid China stand by as a new president of the upstart U.S. of A. used wine and food for political theater? As China’s rulers saw it, the president’s Texas barbecue was in the wrong place and had invited the wrong guests. Dissidents to be guests at an event where we ourselves are also guests? Anathema! Even if the dissidents were only 0.4 percent, it was out of the question.
From the moment we received our invitations, I could sense that the stakes were high. Not wanting to take any chances, I called the Foreign Affairs office of the Chinese Academy of Sciences the next day, February 23, to report that we had received the invitations. I wanted to know as soon as possible whether the authorities were going to disapprove, so that if they did, there would be ample time to send our regrets. To be quite plain about it, Li Shuxian and I were not going to feel shattered if the authorities said no. At bottom, the American invitation was for food, wine, and socializing—nothing more. And Texas barbecue would not be a new experience for us anyway, because we had done that once before, on an earlier visit to Texas.
I began to take stock in my own mind of what might happen. I reminded myself that—normally, anyway—seasoned politicians conceal their discomfort in public. In this case, moreover, the authorities might see the banquet as an opportunity to present an appearance of broad-mindedness to the world. And if they did want to block us from attending, their most likely choice of ways to do it would be to go through the Beijing Observatory or the Chinese Academy of Sciences to state their instructions clearly. This was, after all, the method they had used with me in the past, whenever they wanted to ban me from foreign travel or other activities.
But, strangely, no prohibitions arrived, either explicitly or subtly, during the three days between our receipt of the invitations and the banquet day. The authorities at the Beijing Observatory even said that they would provide a car for us. It was a bit eerie. Exactly what medicine were the authorities brewing inside their covered pot? There was no way to tell.
What they did do, in the end, was something no person of normal intelligence could ever have anticipated. In order to reach one simple goal—blocking two people from a banquet—they rolled out five stunning countermeasures.
Countermeasure One: Martial law traffic control.
At 5:30 p.m. on February 26, Li Shuxian and I, together with Perry Link and his wife, got into a car in Zhongguancun in northwestern Beijing and headed east across the city toward the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel. Our driver told us later that he had noticed, as we pulled out, that another car fell in behind and was tailing us. The rest of us didn’t notice this.
Around 6:00 p.m., where the Third Ring Road passes near the Great Wall Hotel, Countermeasure One kicked in. Hundreds of police appeared as if from nowhere, eyes flashing, and bringing traffic to a standstill. We thought, at first, that this must have been part of security for the Bush entourage as it arrived at the banquet. But no. Once the police had spotted our car, a swarm descended to surround us, while the others disbanded. All of this activity had been for us.
Countermeasure Two: On-the-scene control by the top special agent.
With our car unable to move, we decided to get out and walk the remaining short distance to the Great Wall Sheraton. After only a few steps, however, a bevy of plainclothes police surrounded us to block our way. Their leader was a swarthy man with a rough manner—the very image of the “hit man” used by police. He stepped forward, hooked his arm roughly under mine, and said, “I am the special agent in charge of all security for the Bush visit. The invitation list that the U.S. Secret Service gave to us does not include your two names, so you cannot go to the banquet.”
This told us several things. For one, it showed that the highest priority of the highest- ranking agent in charge of security for the U.S. president was not the security of the U.S. president.
Countermeasure Three: Suspension of public transportation.
With advance impossible, retreat was our only option. We decided to go to the U.S. embassy to seek a determination about the alleged “Secret Service name list.” Our car and driver were by now nowhere to be seen. We lined up for a taxi at another nearby hotel, but after a few hundred yards police forced that car, too, to stop. Next we tried the public bus system, but once again the police were a step ahead. As we waited at a bus stop, we could see police flag down buses before they arrived. Something was said to the drivers, who then drove past our stop without stopping. No one could get either on or off. Passengers on the buses and would-be passengers waiting to board were of course puzzled and frustrated. Our plight (if not our taint) had spread to them.
Countermeasure Four: Accompaniment on a nighttime stroll.
We abandoned the idea of boarding any sort of vehicle and set out toward the embassy on foot. It was already 7:00 p.m. or so; the sky was dark and the temperature was falling. But we were never alone: in front, behind, and on both sides, police were always “accompanying”—some in uniform, some in plainclothes—and a police car always tailed. At each intersection an armed motorcycle with a sidecar awaited, engine humming, ready for action. The visible police that night must have numbered at least a hundred; the number behind the scenes, invisible to us, must have been that many or more. So there you have it: a single dissident, just one person who says, “I will be free,” is reason to deploy more than a hundred armed police.
We reached the embassy district around 8:30 p.m. By chance we met a Canadian diplomat, David Horley, who was out with his wife for an evening stroll. When they learned of our predicament they invited us to their apartment. We accepted, and this move stymied the police, who could not enter the home of a diplomat and therefore could no longer “accompany” us. But police vehicles pulled right up to the gate of the Horleys’ apartment building, where they waited, at the ready.
Countermeasure Five: A police escort to a press conference.
This was the most baffling of the countermeasures. During the hour between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Horley apartment, we received calls from journalists. They had noticed that the seats for Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian at the banquet were empty and they had called our residence to find out why. Our son Fang Zhe, who was at home, knew we were at the Horleys’ because we had called him from there right away, just to assure him that we were all right. He gave the Horleys’ number to reporters, and the stream of their calls was incessant. We decided to go to the Shangri-La Hotel, where hundreds of international journalists who had come to Beijing to cover the Bush visit were centered. This would be more efficient: we could answer everyone’s questions at once. We had to assume that the authorities were listening in when we mentioned the plan on the telephone, and we worried that police might once again appear to prevent us from seeing the journalists. Horley volunteered his car, and we indeed were followed— but not blocked. We reached the Shangri-La with no problems.
Why did they let us go? The most plausible explanation for the peculiar forbearance is that the authorities, in drawing up their plan for the evening, had omitted the journalism question. The job of Chinese police is to carry out plans; if something is not in a plan, they do not take initiatives on their own.
Let me insert an anecdote to illustrate this mentality. In October 1987 a researcher at the Beijing Observatory was killed in an automobile accident. The traffic police requested, repeatedly, that the death be recorded as “accidental,” not as a “traffic death.” They wanted this because the quota for traffic deaths in their annual plan was nearly full. If the number of traffic deaths were to exceed the number in the plan, they would not get their bonuses for plan fulfillment. Their problem was that the bereaved family would not honor the request. The family insisted that the death be truthfully recorded as a traffic death while the police continued to make up reasons why “accident” was a better label. The family eventually prevailed, but in January of the new year, the police unfurled a splendid banner in front of the Beijing Observatory. I can’t remember it word for word, but it was something like struggle hard to fill this year’s plan for the number of traffic deaths!
In any case, at 11:30 on the evening of the banquet, at an impromptu press conference for international journalists, we explained what had happened. The reporters were excited. From the police point of view, the work plan of several hundred personnel had been successfully executed. But the success had stolen from President Bush the headlines in the next day’s newspapers all around the world.
From THE MOST WANTED MAN IN CHINA. Used with permission of Henry Holt and Co. Translated by Perry Link. Copyright 2016 by Fang Lizhi.