Wei Jingsheng on Fang Lizhi: China's Human Rights Hero

04/10/2012 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2012

Last week, Fang Lizhi, a towering figure in China's human rights movement and the "father" of the Tiananmen student movement, died. He is remembered here by Wei Jingsheng, another giant of the human rights movement, who spent 15 years in Chinese prisons.

By Wei Jingsheng

NEW YORK -- Professor Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist whom many regarded as "China's Sakharov," died at his home in Arizona last week. He died very suddenly and did not suffer great pain; the unusual luck of the unfortunate.

For this great Chinese patriot to die in the American desert 22 years after he was forced into exile symbolizes the harsh truth about the ruling Communist regime which Fang often warned the world about.

For those of us whose memories have not been erased by the censorship of getting rich gloriously, Fang was a hero. In the years and months leading up to the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, he dared to tell the historical facts -- about Mao, the Party, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution -- to a new generation.

Although I didn't meet him till later in life, our fates were intertwined through the democracy movement. It was Professor Fang's open letter to Deng Xiaoping on January 6, 1989, that sparked the mass movement that Deng would crush in June. In that letter he called for my release from prison, where I had already served 10 of the 15 years I would ultimately serve for my big character poster calling for "the Fifth Modernization" -- democracy.

My gratitude to Fang remains immense. For foreign dignitaries to ask the Chinese government to release me was one thing, and I am of course grateful. But for the person whom Deng Xiaoping hated most to openly offend the dictator required enormous courage.

The temper of a dictator is not to bow to any pressure. Such pressure from abroad was easier to resist because intractability could be wrapped in the flag of sovereignty. To Deng, Fang Lizhi was much more dangerous because his voice resonated with the younger generation who were China's future. Deng well understood that Fang offered a decidedly different path to that future -- one Deng proved he could not abide on June 4 when he called out the tanks.

From his outpost in exile, Professor Fang did not give up. In 2010, when yet another brutal campaign to repress and intimidate dissidents was launched by the Party leadership, Fang wrote:

"This should be a wake-up call to anyone who naively believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer. Regardless of how widely China's leaders have opened its market to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.

"On the contrary, China's dictators have become even more contemptuous of the value of universal human rights. As the unfortunate history of Japan during the first half of the 20th century illustrates, a power that marries economic strength with human rights violations is a threat to peace."

Though the democracy movement has been weakened in China, Fang did not waste his life. Being a tragic hero does not tarnish the true essence of heroism. Just like an old poem says:

"Be a hero of the people when alive
Be a martyr among the spirits when you die;
Think of ancient general Xiang Yu, who fought to his end."