Fang Lizhi, 1991 Sidney Hook Award Recipient

Glenn Ricketts

Yet again we must mourn, this time for Professor Fang Lizhi, a dauntless critic of the Chinese Communist government and intrepid advocate of free inquiry, who died in Tucson Arizona on April 6.

Professor Fang was defiant in the face of increased pressure and censorship from the Chinese Communist authorities  when such outspokenness often carried far more serious consequences than denial of tenure or getting sacked from one’s job.  Nevertheless, he continued to speak plainly and openly in defense of democracy and free scientific inquiry, a posture which eventually led to his expulsion from China and re-location to the United States.

We were deeply honored therefore, to bestow on him the Sidney Hook Memorial Award – given periodically in recognition of outstanding contributions to the freedom and integrity of academic life – at our 1991 national conference in Minneapolis.  The late Professor Barry Gross, who introduced Professor Fang on the occasion, saluted his courage and resolve:

He came of age in China when voicing incorrect opinions cost him, and still costs other brave people, not loss of tenure or access to professional life, but loss of liberty and, for some, loss of life itself.  When we think today about this award, let us be true to Sidney [Hook's] thought and remember that Fang Li-Zhi put his life and liberty at grave risk. (Academic Questions, Summer, 1992, vol. 5, no. 3)

As Professor Fang then observed in his acceptance speech: 

Why have scientists and students of science always conflicted with the Communist authorities?  The answer is quite simple:  the basic spirit and methods of science require free research, which directly conflicts with an ideology of tyranny.  The notion of absolute authority, for instance, is completely absent from science.  Science is not a doctrine.  Even in the first course in physics the problem of dealing with experimental error and teach our students that physics is always changing, that old theories are replaced by new ones.  It would be pointless to try to conceal errors in physics, because physics is not a field in which making a mistake, or pointing out someone else’s error is a capital offense.  It is therefore impossible for a student who keeps an open mind about the problems in physics to worship a dictator or a tyrannical ideology.  Science also requires freedom of scientific exchange, which involves the free circulation of scientists and scientific knowledge.  Scientists therefore cannot adapt to a society in which information is centrally planned.  In short, scientific education and free research are totally inconsistent with ideological controls. (Academic Questions, Summer, 1992, vol. 5, no. 3) 

It’s easy to see why Professor Fang was no longer welcome in his homeland; it’s even easier to see why he was a natural choice for the Sidney Hook award.  Fang Lizhi, tireless defender of scientific freedom,  proponent of democracy, and a very brave man, dead at age 76.  

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