The Book of the Week is “The Most Wanted Man in China, My Journey From Scientist to Enemy of the State” by Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link, published in 2016. Despite its sensationalist title, this volume aptly described the unusual personal account of a Chinese dissident who was fortunate to receive minimal (but still emotionally wrenching) punishment for his “crimes” in an oppressive regime. Under that regime, there were millions of deaths due to famine and suicides.
Born in Beijing, China in 1936, Fang was the second-oldest of six siblings. As a business owner, Fang’s grandfather exploited his employees, according to the Marxist doctrine forced down the throats of the Chinese people. Therefore, when Fang joined the Communist Party for the first time in June 1955, he was compelled to denounce his late grandfather.
At university, Fang began to rebel against the robotic, rote-learning curriculum. Having developed a passion for tinkering with electronics and studying science at an early age, he asked why there wasn’t independent thinking. The authorities answered that only several sources of ideology (Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Engels and the Communist Party) had already discovered the absolute best way to think for the people, so no one need waste any more time on thinking for themselves.
Mao maintained that socialism was the best economic system, but admitted that there were three imperfections with it: “subjectivism, bureaucratism and factionalism.” Mao encountered a big problem when university students started to search for why. By using reason, logic, science and independent thinking, followers of a leader cannot help but question the leader. As an absolute ruler, Mao could not abide that.
Mao thus used four techniques of Communist dictators to maintain his power. The first was to label only 5% of the people as “rightists” and dangerous enemies. This way, the majority of Chinese people would feel threatened, so he could crush everyone like bugs through fear and force. The second was to falsely accuse them of being anti-Party and anti-socialist. [In the United States, a dictatorial president might label people “unpatriotic”].
Thirdly, Mao had his minions behave like tattletales in publicly criticizing the small groups (pairs, even) of closet rightists. Finally, the authorities organized self-criticism groups to foster group-think and herd-mentality to denounce everyone’s every transgression. Because– people feel more comfortable engaging in group-bullying than individually attacking others.
Fang became a teaching assistant at the University of Peking, until December 1957, when he was reassigned to do farm work– hard manual labor– in a rural area. He was forced to live far away from his girlfriend and later, wife and kids, over the course of about twenty years.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Fang was alternately exiled to rural areas, and returned to resume his primary career at a university, engaging in both teaching and research in nuclear physics, and later, materials science and laser physics. Ironically, Fang acquired a variety of physical skills and valuable experience in all different kinds of workplaces, such as a railroad, coalmine, pig farm, water-well, steel mill, vinyl and brick factories, tunnels, etc.
Mao ordered dissidents to be geographically separated from their loved ones, so as to: impose psychological trauma on the people, make it difficult for them to form alliances with the like-minded, and band together to fight his oppressive regime. Fang was in a special category because he possessed rare expertise in academia. So for a few months in mid-1969, he was detained with other scientists and was pumped with Mao’s ideology for hours every day.
But prior to that, in his twenties, even Fang had been ideologically brainwashed. In 1965, he thought he wanted to study in the Soviet Union because he liked its brand of socialism. He was impressed that the Soviets were ahead of the Americans in the space race.
Until he started traveling internationally, even Fang, a well-educated physicist, lived in an insular society that limited his knowledge of the rest of the world. He read scientific journals from other countries, but had no real understanding of political ideologies or cultures other than his own.
Fang lost respect for the Chinese authorities beginning in 1967, when he heard rumors that Mao’s closest political associates were just a bunch of mean, petty, vengeful people jockeying for power. Currently, in the United States, such people who are also super-wealthy, might adopt a litigious lifestyle, which is extremely expensive, but effective in intimidating and vanquishing enemies.
Mao launched a new nationwide political campaign every time the old one started to backfire on him. For example, in the mid-1970’s, “Denunciations of the wrong kind of astronomy topped the agendas, but in order to do that, someone had to read the texts of the papers that were going to be denounced. So real astronomy spread.” At least the Chinese backed up their denunciations with evidence.
In 21st century America, attention whoredom has reached new heights. For, few media commentators actually read the book, see the movie or know much about the report or study they denounce. They simply play a game of “telephone” and the tabloid-believing public eats it up. Oftentimes, it’s just a non-story, hysterically reported.
The commentators are so desperate for attention or to put their two cents in with no independent thinking that they even shamelessly admit to their own laziness or ignorance in not doing their homework.
Their audience is seeking confirmation of what it already believes, so no convincing is necessary. Further, when evidence is presented, the data are cherry-picked with weaselly language in oversimplified apples-to-oranges comparisons. So it’s as though the media have already done the thinking for the American masses.
So why are Americans so politically dogmatic on one side or the other? How are the media imposing this thought-control? It’s not through fear or force (!)
By nature people are lazy. Nowadays, they’ll get information from the most accessible sources–TV, radio or their electronic toy (phone). Those sources convey information concocted by attention whores or entertainers or profit-seekers with a political agenda. Not scholars who seek out original sources and comprehensively present both sides of an issue. This has almost always been the case in the most recent century, but the difference today is in the quality of the information presented.
The information is mostly opinions and when it isn’t, the audience can’t tell whether it’s propaganda. For, journalism verification standards have been eliminated. There used to be fact-checking departments and ethics guidelines to avoid conflicts of interest– at reputable publications and broadcasting and cable communications companies. No more.
Further, many media commentators who have no law degrees express their opinions on legal issues. But practicing lawyers are more likely to know what they’re talking about when explaining the issues. Sadly, it appears that this ignorant state of affairs isn’t going to change anytime soon.
Anyway, read the book to learn much more about Fang’s life and work (from the “horse’s mouth”), and whether much changed in China with Mao’s successor.