Fang Lizhi, 76, whom China had accused of counter-revolutionary crimes, lived in Tucson where he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona. He died of natural causes, according to the Twitter feed of Wu Renhua, a dissident living in exile in the United States.
Exiled dissident Wang Dan, who topped a list of the 21 most-wanted student leaders from the time when the Chinese army crushed pro-democracy demonstrations centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, confirmed the news on his Twitter feed after speaking to Fang’s wife, Li Shuxian.
“At this moment, no words can express my grief,” Wang wrote. “Fang Lizhi has inspired the ’89 generation and has awakened the people’s yearning for human rights and democracy.”
Fang and his wife sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for over a year after the Chinese army crackdown. China then accused them of counter-revolutionary crimes, tantamount to treason.
Fang had no public role in the protests, but decided to seek shelter after pro-government supporters burned effigies of him.
In June 1990, in a concession to Washington, Beijing allowed Fang to leave China to seek medical treatment abroad. China said the couple had shown “signs of repentance.”
Fang never returned.
Fang campaigned vigorously in the West for countries to maintain pressure on the Chinese government to respect human rights and permit dissent.
“Fang Lizhi was truly a great man. He spoke truth to power from a rigorous analytic mind, with great courage, and … with charming wit as well,” Perry Link, a noted China scholar at the University of California-Riverside, said by email.
“A government that forced him into exile from his beloved homeland for 22 years will want the world to forget him, but it will fail.”
In 1986, Fang emerged as an eloquent advocate of radical political change in China, declaring science should not be determined by Marxist theory.
He was quoted as saying in 1987 that the Chinese Communist Party could not boast of a single success in nearly 40 years of rule. “Marxism…is like a worn dress that must be put aside,” he said.
His constant challenge to the Party apparently incurred the wrath of China’s former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. In a secret speech to central committee members in 1987, Deng singled him out by name for expulsion from the Party.
Fang, along with several intellectuals identified with China’s dissident movement, was invited to a banquet with former U.S. President George Bush during a visit in February 1989, but police barred him from attending.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Pennsylvania and Anna Yukhananov in Washington, DC; Editing by Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman)