On April 6, 2012, a prominent Chinese democracy advocate and noted thinker, Fang Lizhi, passed away in Tucson, AZ. He was forced to flee to the United States in 1989 in the wake of the Chinese authorities’ clampdown on the democracy movement in China.
In addition to his well-known effort on democracy and freedom for China, he was also a Chinese intellectual who had a good grasp of the nature of the Tibetan problem. One of his ways of indicating his concern for the plight of the Tibetan people was by serving on the international council of advisors of the International Campaign for Tibet.
In 1991, a few years after he came to the United States, Fang addressed a conference, most probably the first-ever dialogue between Chinese and Tibetans, on the issue of Tibet in New York. What he said then holds true even now.
There are some Chinese people who tend to hold the view that Tibetans may have suffered under the present regime, but so have the Chinese people. Fang had this to say on the issue. “Tibet has suffered much during the years of Chinese Communist Party rule, as has all of the People’s Republic of China. But Tibet’s cultural and religious life has been more severely attacked by the Communist Party than the traditions of the Han culture. Still, Tibetan culture has managed to survive; it seems to have great resilience.”
On the question whether a democratic China may be better off for the people of Tibet, Fang said, “We all want democracy. But will democracy make interaction among various social groups more harmonious, or less? A change toward genuine democratization is a necessary condition for such harmony, but it is not a sufficient condition in itself. In other words, we need both democracy and human rights if we are to find a way to live together peacefully, but something more is needed.”
He went on the expand on this “something more” that was needed by talking about the Chinese authorities’ discriminatory policies against non-Chinese people. Fang said, “The Chinese Communist Party has always suppressed nationalistic feelings among the ethnic groups that make the People’s Republic of China. Han nationalism is considered to be fine, but minority nationalism is labeled “splittism” and “counterrevolutionary.” Just as in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union in past decades, communism has driven nationalisms underground. The Communist Party’s solution to the problem of the various minorities is to cover up their sense of uniqueness, to forbid any expression of nationalism. This, in the long term, is no solution at all. As long as the one-party rule of the Communist Party lasts, ethnic conflict will continue.”
If we look at the Chinese authorities repressive policies on Tibetans, we can see that what Fang mentions is something that has not merely happened, but continues to happen, to the Tibetan people today.
Fang, nevertheless, promotes dialogue as a way to resolve conflicts. In a way of encouraging both Tibetans and Chinese to understand each other better and to create trust and confidence, he said, “I think we must not retreat into our separate corners and stare at each other suspiciously from a distance. We must create an environment in which we can continue to talk through the problems that come up and find solutions to them, rather than allowing them to fester. We must find universal standards that bring us together in agreement and fellowship.”
I have never met Prof. Fang Lizhi, but just as those many Chinese people who have been inspired by his words and action, I believe that his position on the issue of Tibet is something that is increasingly felt by Chinese intellectuals who truly care about the future of China. As such, he is also an inspiration for me.