Sunday, April 8, 2012

Fang Li Zhi 1936 - 2012

While all the networks are about to launch a Viking funeral for Mike Wallace, I will remember Fang Lizhi who died Saturday.

Fang Lizhi was a physicist best remembered for his leadership of the pro-democracy movement in China, and as an influential Chinese dissident in exile in Tuscon, Arizona where he spent his last years.

He came to my attention in a scathing review he wrote of a new biography of Deng Xiaopeng by Ezra Vogel which I referenced extensively in a past blog post. Fang trashed the conventional wisdom that somehow the Tienanmen Massacre was necessary for the creation of today's prosperous and powerful China. Fang had the temerity to ask "prosperous for whom?" Fang painted a picture of a modern China that looked a lot like the old dynastic China. A powerful oligarchy trades in ruthless communism for ruthless capitalism in order to stay in power and to get rich. What liberties the regime allowed were only those necessary for the creation of a technocratic elite. In other areas such as internet access, religious independence, and even women's clothes, the regime became even more restrictive. Fang points out that China's greatest resource is the same one it has always had, a vast pool of cheap labor. Powerful modern China is being built on the backs of millions of people who have no say and no share in any of it, and are forbidden to organize to try to improve their lot.

As the USA, and apparently much of Europe, make the transition from democracy to oligarchy, China is becoming the desired template of success, unburdened by labor unions, health and safety regulations, and democracy. Right wing pundits on both sides of the Atlantic love China and its regime.

Fang has some other insights into modern China which ring with uncomfortable familiarity in the West. Fang points out the regime's use of consumerism to keep the population pacified. People are too busy trying to get rich, to keep up with their neighbors, and to get laid to be interested much in anything that might cause them to reflect dangerously upon their situation. Usually criticisms of public morals are license for beating up sexual minorities, but that's not what Fang's argument is about. Instead, it's closer to what an old friend of mine, a former Trotskyite, described as the real opiate of the masses, consumerism. As people become more shallow and self-absorbed, they become less worried about things like freedom and dignity. Indeed, they become brutal and brutalized as they forget what it really means to be human. They become willing and eager fodder for their rulers.

Fang Lizhi was one of those rare public intellectuals who challenged the ways we usually measure national and economic success. A prosperous elite lording it over a miserable and brutalized population was not his idea of economic success or national greatness. Such a society was unworthy to even be considered civilized in Fang's view.

Even if he had lived to be 100, Fang Lizhi's death would still be untimely.

Fang Lizhi's photo on China state television as a wanted man in 1989 shortly after the Tienanmen Massacre.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

He stood for what was right, not easy. We all lost a defender with his death. I wish I had known more about him before this.