Open Letter to Deng Xiaoping

views updated

Open Letter to Deng Xiaoping


By: Fang Lizhi

Date: January 6, 1989

Source: Angle, Stephen C. and Marina Svensson, ed. Chinese Human Rights Reader. Armonk, New York; M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

About the Author: Fang Lizhi is a Chinese physicist and political dissident whose writings, including his 1989 open letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Chinese government, contributed to the popular protest that culminated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in the spring of 1989. Fang obtained asylum in the United States in 1990, where he continued to participate in the Chinese democracy movement.


In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) took control of China after a lengthy civil war. From that point, the Chinese government has been wary of dissent against governmental authority from any part of Chinese society, particularly with regard to opposition expressed by China's intellectual classes.

Prior to the demonstrations staged at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, organized opposition to government policy within China was invariably suppressed by the government. During the Cultural Revolution, a period of often violent purges of the ranks of the ruling Communist Party that began in 1966, intellectuals who had voiced even mild dissatisfaction with official government policies found them-selves stripped of their status with the Party. Many of these persons were sent into the Chinese country side to work as manual laborers; Fang Lizhi, who had worked as a professor of physics prior to running afoul of the Communist Party, was one of those persons "rehabilitated" in this fashion.

Fang was deemed sufficiently rehabilitated that in the late 1970s he was restored to both Communist Party membership and his academic post. Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), a politician regarded as a moderate, assumed leadership of the Communist Party in 1977, and there was a widespread assumption in the country that with Deng now in power, a greater tolerance would be shown by the Chinese government to the forces favoring greater democracy and freedom of expression in China.

The modern Chinese dissident movement received much of its impetus from a letter sent to Deng by Wie Jingsheng, a Chinese activist, in 1978. Deng had published his views regarding the advancement of China in a policy document entitled The Four Modernizations. Wie's letter, the Fifth Modernization, asserted that there could be no economic progress without democracy. Wie was branded a counter revolutionary and a traitor and was imprisoned for his views in 1979. Wie would remain in custody until 1997.

Fang supported the views of Wie and was out-spoken regarding Wie's release. On January 6, 1989, Fang wrote to Deng Xiaoping in an open letter, urging the release of both Wie and all other political prisoners held in China. Fang's letter coincided with a growing unrest in China, particularly within the hundreds of thousands of students resident in and around Beijing. Increasingly bold displays of dissatisfaction with government policy culminated in the protests staged at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in April 1989.


January 6, 1989

Central Military Commission

Dear Chairman Deng:

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, and the seventieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement. There must be many events commemorating these important dates, but the people are perhaps more worried right now about the future than about the past.

In order to better evoke the spirit of these days, I earnestly suggest that on the fortieth anniversary of this nation's founding, you grant a full amnesty, especially for political prisoners such as Wei Jingsheng. Whatever one's assessment of Wei Jingsheng might be, a full pardon for people like him who have already served ten years in prison would certainly be consistent with a spirit of humanity.

This year also marks the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. Thanks to the inspiration it provides, liberty, equality, fraternity and human rights have received increasing respect over the passing years. I reiterate my sincere hope that you will consider my suggestion so that respect for these values may grow even more in the future.

My best regards,

Fang Lizhi


The most obvious consequence of the letter from Fang to Deng Xiaoping was its contribution to anti-government feeling among China's intellectual and student groups in early 1989. The Chinese government were sufficiently persuaded as to Fang's influence with the student protestors at Tiananmen Square that Fang and his wife, Li Shuxian, were the persons that headed a "Most Wanted" list of suspected counter-revolutionaries published by the Chinese government after the protests were suppressed by the Chinese army on June 4, 1989. Fang and his wife were provided a safe haven within the United States embassy in Beijing until they were transported out of China by the United States in June 1990.

The open letter from Fang to Deng Xiaoping represented the first time any member of China's intellectual elite had publicly questioned the imprisonment of anyone. Fang's letter prompted others in the Chinese intellectual and academic classes to send their own letters to Deng Xiaoping.

The pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square remain among the most profound and visible protest ever initiated within China against its political leadership. It was also the first demonstration within China that was the subject of relatively contemporaneous media coverage, albeit without the cooperation of Chinese authorities. Tiananmen Square focused international attention on China and its suppression of human rights in the name of Communist Party control. China was roundly condemned by other nations for the manner in which the demonstrations were terminated, including the firing of weapons into thousands of massed and unarmed demonstrators. Hundreds of protestors were killed by the military gunfire and upwards of 500 persons were imprisoned by the Chinese government for their part in the demonstrations.

Despite significant pressure from foreign governments and the international organizations that support the development of democracy in China, the Chinese government never conducted an investigation or an public inquiry into the events of June 4, 1989 at Tiananmen Square.

However, the protest climate that Fang's letter formed a part did not lead to any immediate changes in the dictatorial rule of the Chinese Communist Party into the 1990s. Wie, who remained in prison until 1997, wrote a further open letter to Deng Xiaoping in 1992 regarding the Chinese control of Tibet, a country first occupied by the Chinese in 1950; numerous international groups, including the Dalai Lama, had attacked China for its repression of Tibetan nationals. Fang was actively working from his home in exile in the United States to advance the cause for liberalization and democracy in China, without apparent concrete success.

Deng Xiaoping retired in 1989, and the economic reforms that were initiated in China continued with greater speed. China is now an overtly capitalistic and market driven economy. China has executed a series of bilateral trade agreements with the United States and numerous other Western countries since 1990 that have served as the backbone to a significant flow of trade between China and its economic partners. In a direct contrast to the anti-capitalism rhetoric directed against the Western world by China in the time of the Cultural Revolution, American commercial icons such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds now have hundreds of outlets in China.

The flourishing trade has not been impaired by the concerns voiced from time to time by American and other nations regarding the absence of any significant democratic movements in China. Economic issues are of major importance in the current dealings between Western democracies and the Chinese government. Fang has attained iconic status in the academic literature that pertains to the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He published Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China in 1991.



Lizhi, Fang. Bringing Down the Great Wall: Writings on Science, Culture, and Democracy in China. New York; Norton, 1992.

Miller, H. Lynn. The Limits of Authority: Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China. Seattle; University of Washington Press, 1996.

Perry, Elizabeth J., and Mark Selden. Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance (Asia's Transformations). New York; Routledge, 2000.

Web sites

Human Rights in China. "Background to the 1989 Democracy Movement." May 1, 2006. 〈〉 (accessed May 29, 2006).