by Bill Colella (

A bronze colored self- portrait hangs on the back wall of Dr. Li-Zhi Fang’s office in the physics department at the University of Arizona. The contrast of light, metallic areas to dark, mud-colored sections seems to represent his life. “You don’t know my story?” he asked with a sullen stare. China, democracy, human rights, science, political refugee, U of A, are all associated with his name, he is reassured. His gaze and tone of voice stress the importance of his convictions, but a robust laugh frequently eases the somber mood.

As a physics student at Beijing University in the 1950s, Fang began to see that science involves questioning and challenging everything. But the communist government in China didn’t encourage free thinking. Fang wanted to show the citizens of his country that without human rights and democratic reforms, China could never live up to its true potential as one of the world’s great nations.

Fang became a physicist at the Beijing Astronomical Observatory in the Xin-Long Mountains, just outside the city of Beijing. The facility is affiliated with Beijing University, where he would give lectures to faculty and students not only on the concepts of theoretical physics, but also on the need for democracy in China.
On April 27, 1989, students began massing in Tiananmen Square to demonstrate their desire for democratic reforms in the communist regime. At one point, over 1 million people marched there in support of the student protest. After 37 days in the square, a group of about 100,000 remained and the government sent word to military commanders to remove the protesters at all costs.

“I recommended the students leave. We would go back to campus and keep the pressure on from there,” Fang said. He felt the students had delivered a clear message, but they couldn’t immediately change the government. He was never permitted to step foot on the square during the protests though, house arrest had been imposed on him by Beijing police as soon as the demonstrations began.

At 10 p.m. on June 3, government soldiers opened fire on protesters trying to block the army’s advance. By 6 a.m. the next morning, Chinese Red Cross accounts cited 2,600 dead. An unofficial report declared 10,000 wounded.

“As soon as the shooting began, the police disappeared,” Fang said regarding his house arrest status. It is still unclear why, he said. Perry Link, a Princeton University professor in Beijing as a representative of the Natural Academy of Sciences, contacted Fang and told him it was time to go, as fears of massive arrests of reform leaders were beginning to come true. Fang and his wife went to the ABC News headquarters in Beijing, where they were permitted to hide for one night. The following day, Link took Fang to the U.S. embassy. Over one year later, Fang was still there, in hiding.

Contact with the outside world was too risky. No phone calls. No letters. He could perhaps make a few anonymous communications via computer, but letting the Chinese government find out for certain he was hiding in the embassy meant not just danger for him, but for international relations as well. Fang turned toward his life-long fascination -- physics.

“I published a paper,” Fang said, back in his office at the U of A, a smile flashing across his face. Standing up quickly, he walked to a book shelf filled with plain white three-ring binders. Sliding one off of the shelf, Fang thumbed through a few items in the binder and pulled a paper titled “Periodicity of Redshift Distance in a T-3 Universe,” dated June 25, 1990, months before he fled China. But the address read “International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics, Rome, Italy.” “One of my friends at the center said it was OK to use this address. I could have gone there after I left China, but I don’t speak Italian,” Fang said and broke into a laugh.

After a year of negotiating with the Chinese, the U.S. government arranged for Fang to be taken out of the country. Because there are so few commercial flights in or out of Beijing, “I flew out on Air Force Two,” he said and again laughed. And no, Dan Quayle wasn’t on board.

Fang and his wife were taken to Cambridge, England, where he worked at the University as a physicist. Six months later he moved on to Princeton University for one year. The first thing Fang noticed when he arrived in the United States was freedom, “The freedom I fight for for almost 30 years, freedom of speech, mostly.” In early 1992, he was offered a position in the physics department at the University of Arizona.

“The Internet helps,” Fang said regarding efforts to remain in contact with colleagues still in China. “I can’t go to China, but with the Internet I am able.” Would he go back to China if the political climate changed? “I very much like it here. But yes, I would go back, if possible.”