Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fang Lizhi Reminiscences the Early Years of USTC

This year, 2008, will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of University of Science and Technology of China (USTC, 科大). In planning for the upcoming commemoration activities, some faculties at the school suggested to invite Professor Fang Lizhi back home to attend. After all, Fang had worked in that school for more than 28 years and served as its Vice President for a few years before he was sacked.

But that of course would never happen. Fang Lizhi is still an "enemy of state" for his alleged involvement in the Tiananmen movement and in exile. It's increasingly unlikely that he would be allowed to be back in China in his lifetime.

In lieu of attending the ceremonies, Fang has just published an essay to reminiscence on the very early years of USTC. It's a touching remembrance of a time that has thankfully become more and more unfamiliar to today's people in China.

USTC was founded in 1958 as a small but ambitious technical college in the western suburban of Beijing. It's mission was to rapidly turn out graduates highly skilled in the most advanced technology so they could serve in the budding defense projects including nuclear bombs, missiles, and satellites (两弹一星).

As a new school, however, it had to accept "cast-offs" from existing universities to establish its faculty. Fang Lizhi estimated that 60% of USTC's founding faculties were "political defects" such as himself. Fang had just been expelled from the Communist Party for his outspokenness during the "Anti-Rightists Movement" and was dispatched from Beida to the new USTC.

Perhaps because such a high ratio of "bad elements", Fang fondly recalls that, life in the early USTC was actually easier for them. Fang was allowed to teach undergraduate classes right away, although he was barely a lecturer at the time. He was also able to conduct his own research, in between performing physical labor as all intellectuals were required to do at the time. However, when his first research paper was accepted by the top physics journal in China, he was told that he could not use his real name. A pseudonym was used: 王允然, which literally means "allowed by the King".

USTC was eventually moved out of Beijing to the remote Anhui Province in early 1970s. Taking advantage of its distance from Beijing, Fang Lizhi and other like-minded young faculties and administrators reformed the school into a basin of free thinking and academic excellence. During the 1980s, when Fang was the Vice President of the school, USTC had gained enough prestige to be regarded on par with the more traditional powerhouses such as Beida and Tsinghua.

Also due to its remote location, USTC was never a hotbed for student movements. But in the Fall of 1986, inspired by Fang's liberal speeches, USTC ignited a wave of large-scale protests that swept the southern part of the country. In January, 1987, Fang Lizhi was expelled from the Communist Party once again and stripped all his positions in USTC. He returned to Beijing and was assigned to be a staff in Beijing Astronomical Observatories.

As Fang noted in his essay, both his arrival and departure of USTC coincided with his being expelled from the Party.

Today, Fang is a Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona. Since his forced departure of USTC, the school had lost much of its fame in China.

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