Sunday, January 6, 2008

1989: The Year of Anniversaries

The fact that 1989 became the year of the biggest student demonstrations was not entirely coincidental. It was a conspicuous year for China. Several important anniversaries fell on that year:
This, coupled with some of the (relatively) smaller scale student movements in the previous years, caused a lot of excitement in various campuses. From the beginning of the year, student activists were already busy publishing their own mimeographed magazines calling for actions during the anniversary year. Privately, they gathered and talked endlessly about "doing something big".

Social discontent was also in the rise, mostly due to rampant inflation and corruption. But at this point, such mundane matters was not seriously regarded by the students and intellectuals. At least not yet.

It was Professor Fang Lizhi who made the first big noise of the year. After the student movements in late 1986, Fang Lizhi was one of the intellectuals who had been publicly expelled from the Communist Party and stripped of academic positions. For his physics background, he was assigned a staff position in the Beijing Observatories. For a couple of years, Fang was content in doing research work there and kept a public silence, until now.

Professor Fang was also keenly aware that 1989 was also the 10th anniversary of Wei JingSheng's imprisonment. An electrician and outspoken democratic activist during the Beijing Spring movement a decade earlier, Wei had been sentenced for 15 years since 1979. By 1989, Wei's case had been largely erased from the public memory.

On January 6, 1989, Fang Lizhi surprised everyone by publishing an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, an act that was extremely unusual in China and considered an open protest. The letter was concise and to the point:

Chairman Deng Xiaoping
The Central Military Commission

This year is the 40th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. It is also the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. There will certainly be a lot of commemorate activities for these anniversaries. However, compared to looking back, far more people would perhaps concern about the present more. They are concerning about new hopes these anniversaries could bring for the future.

For this purpose, I sincerely suggest to you that, at the cusp of these anniversaries, a nationwide amnesty is called for, especially to release Wei Jingsheng and all political prisoners like him.

I think that, however one would judge Wei Jingsheng himself, releasing someone like him who had been in prison for 10 years is consistent to the humanitarian principle. It will enhance the social atmosphere.

Coincidentally, this year is also the 200th anniversary of the great French Revolution. No matter how we see that event, the values symbolized by that revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Human Rights, have become universally respected by the human kind. Therefore, I sincerely appeal to you once again to consider my suggestion, so that we can add on more respect for the future.

Best Regards,

Fang Lizhi

In the weeks followed, many prominent intellectuals co-signed a couple of supporting open letters. The excitement of year 1989 was well underway.

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