Atom bomb designer awakens trauma of '89

China/ scientists lead dissent
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after three o'clock on the afternoon of 16 October 1964, Wang Ganchang began to weep. They were tears of joy and relief as he watched a mushroom cloud rise above the wilderness of China's westernmost region.

A former student in Berlin and California who had sailed for home just before Mao Tse-tung came to power, Mr Wang witnessed the detonation of China's first atomic bomb from a command post in the middle of the Xinjiang desert.

It is the same Mr Wang, leader of the top-secret team that designed and manufactured the bomb, who this week helped detonate a quiet but potentially powerful explosion in Peking politics.

Now 88 years old, the celebrated physicist joined 44 other scientists and intellectuals in calling on China's leaders to a lift the stigma of "counter-revolution" from the Tiananmen protests of 1989, the student- led movement triggered in part by the pleas of another Chinese physicist, Fang Lizhi.

The aged Mr Wang may not have initiated the petition, which was drafted by a more junior colleague, but his support, no matter how tangential, places him in a tradition of hard-headed scientific dissent - especially from physicists - that has played a crucial role in the political developments of both China and the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the Cambridge-educated physicist, Pyotr Kapitsa, was one of the few people to write to Stalin, dare to question him and survive. Better known still is Andrei Sakharov, the late father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb whose moral voice not only challenged the now defunct Soviet Communist Party but also retains its resonance in the free market free-for-all of Russia today.

During the Tiananmen movement and an earlier, smaller round of student unrest in 1987, the Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi was often described as the "Chinese Sakharov". He shunned the label himself but did, like Sakharov, base his politics on the view that human rights could no more be defined by country than physics. His constant theme was that politics, like science, must respect immutable universal laws.

The appeal over Tiananmen supported this week in Peking by the elderly Mr Wang has the same basic message as that of a letter sent by Mr Fang in 1989 calling for the release of China's boldest dissident, the former Peking Zoo electrician Wei Jingsheng. The new petition urges the Communist Party "to release all those who have been imprisoned for their thoughts, religious beliefs or acts of speech, and boldly end the ignominious tradition of literary inquisitions that has persisted in our country since ancient times". Both the calibre of the signatories and the Olympian and historical tone of the writing marked out the petition as something the authorities could not dismiss lightly.

Any re-evaluation of the official verdict on Tiananmen will be one of the most difficult issues for the Chinese government after the death of Deng Xiaoping. The petition was thus designed to be published at an extremely sensitive time; not only is Mr Deng, 90, believed to be very frail, but the sixth anniversary of the bloody June 1989 crackdown is only two weeks away.

Already, the authorities have responded by detaining at least four dissidents and stepping up surveillance of others - so much for the appeal's call for tolerance. "We hope the authorities will handle different views on ideology, political thinking and religious beliefs with tolerance. And not treat as enemies those people who have independent thinking or independent beliefs, not use pressure, surveillance, house arrest or even detention against them."

It remains to be seen whether it will have the same result as Mr Fang's letter six years ago. Within a month of his open appeal to Deng Xiaoping in January 1989 Peking was awash with public petitions. Mr Fang, now in exile in the United States, did not play any direct role in the Tiananmen protests once they had begun but he did help create the climate of dissent that exploded onto the streets after the death of the former Communist leader, Hu Yaobang in April of 1989. It was a role that would prompt the party to brand him one of the "black hands behind the turmoil".

It is a sign of how Mr Deng's powers have waned that this week's petition was not addressed to the man who has reigned paramount over China for more than 15 years but to his successor, Jiang Zemin, and the head of China's parliament, Qiao Shi.

Mr Wang appears to be a far more establishment figure than either Mr Fang or Mr Sakharov. After leading the bomb design team in the Ninth Academy, China's nuclear weapons research facility, he served as a senior adviser to the government and played an important role in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other institutions. He figures prominently in an official profile of China's scientific elite published in 1984 under the the title "Ten Prominent Scientists".

But like many of the pre-revolution intellectuals who returned to China from studies abroad, his long and apparently loyal service to the state seems to derive more from patriotism than ideology.