Xu Liangying, Scientist and Advocate, Dies at 92
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
Published: January 31, 2013
His son Xu Chenggang confirmed the death.
In a life that spanned many of the convulsions of 20th-century China, Mr. Xu evolved from an ardent supporter of the Communist Party into an outspoken critic of the government, giving heart to the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 before they were crushed by the military. Threading through that life was his conviction that science, exemplified by Einstein’s achievements, offered China a beacon of reason.
“Superstition is the great enemy of truth,” he told a Chinese magazine, Caijing, last year. “We must use science and democracy to eradicate modern superstitions of every kind, to eradicate superstitions that are born of loyalty.”
Xu Liangying was born in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang on May 3, 1920. He entered Zhejiang University in 1939, determined, he wrote on his entrance form, to become an “authority of modern physics.” As a high school student he had read “The World as I See It,” a collection of Einstein’s essays.
Mr. Xu’s studies were disrupted by the invading Japanese Army, which forced his school to shift from place to place and exposed him to the brute disparities of rural life. Deciding that “total revolution” was needed to transform China, he became a student organizer and joined the Communist Party underground.
After the party came to power in 1949, Mr. Xu’s background as a scientist who had served the revolution won him promotion to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
For a time, he served as a censor in the academy, assigned to scour research papers for any unacceptable views and delicate information. He later spoke proudly of having allowed many papers to be sent abroad for publication, his son said.
But in 1957, the candor that Mr. Xu prized in science brought his downfall. That year, in the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, Mao urged citizens, especially intellectuals, to speak out and expose the party’s failings. But when the response was an outpouring of criticism, Mao condemned his critics as “Rightists.”
Mr. Xu, dismayed by Mao’s reversal, spoke up in defense of the “Hundred Flowers.” He was dismissed from his job, expelled from the Communist Party and condemned as an “ultra-Rightist.”
In 1958, facing imprisonment in a “re-education” labor camp, Mr. Xu persuaded officials to banish him to his home village. He spent most of the next two decades there working as a farmer. In a ruse so that his wife, Wang Laidi, and their two sons could stay in Beijing, the couple divorced, but later remarried.
He began translating Einstein’s works in 1962, relying on friends to send books borrowed from libraries in Beijing, said Danian Hu, a former student of Mr. Xu’s who teaches history at the City College of New York.
But in Mao’s era, not even the abstractions of physics were immune from ideological upheaval. During the Cultural Revolution, radicals from Shanghai showed up at the camp and seized a manuscript of Mr. Xu’s translations of Einstein to use in their campaign to condemn relativity and other findings of what they called “bourgeois science.”
Mao’s death in 1976 ended decades of radical convulsions and gave rise to the reformer Deng Xiaoping, who vowed that science and technology would be at the heart of economic modernization. Tens of thousands of banished scientists and intellectuals, including Mr. Xu, returned from the countryside. He got back his job at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, regained his party membership and published his three-volume collection of Einstein’s works.
Mr. Xu believed, however, that China needed more than the practical applications of science. He and his friend Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist-turned-dissident who died in April, became prominent voices arguing that true progress would elude China unless it embraced intellectual “enlightenment” and ultimately full-fledged democracy. By the late 1980s, Mr. Xu told The New York Times in 2006, “I gave up Marxism totally and returned to Einstein.”
By 1989 he was a “spiritual figurehead for many of the students” who led the pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square, said Mr. Hu, the historian. Mr. Xu, who was not directly involved in the demonstrations, was outraged but not entirely surprised when Deng used tanks and armed soldiers to crush the protests, his son Xu Chenggang said.
“He understood very well the nature of this government,” he added.
Again shunned by the party, Mr. Xu lived nearly a decade under police watch in his book-filled apartment in Beijing’s university district. But in his last years he remained a mentor to young people seeking democratic change, said Hu Jia, a Beijing dissident and friend of Mr. Xu’s.
Mr. Xu’s wife, Ms. Wang, a historian, died on Dec. 31.
Besides his son Xu Chenggang, survivors include another son, Xu Ping; a brother, Xu Liangrong; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Xu was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize by the American Physical Society in 2008 for a “lifetime’s advocacy of truth, democracy and human rights.” His highest formal academic degree was his bachelor’s degree in science.