Fang Lizhi and his wife fled after China's 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement [EPA]

Fang Lizhi, one of China's best-known dissidents whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, has died in the United States.

Fang's wife, Li Shuxian, confirmed to The Associated Press in Beijing that Fang, 76, died on Friday morning in Tucson.

Fang and his wife fled after China's 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement after hiding in the US Embassy for 13 months.

In exile, he was a physics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Fang inspired a generation, said his friend and fellow US- based exiled dissident Wang Dan, who announced the death on Facebook and Twitter.

"I hope the Chinese people will never forget that there was once a thinker like Fang Lizhi. He inspired the '89 generation, and awoke in the people their yearning for human rights and democracy," Wang wrote.

"One day, China will be proud to once have had Fang Lizhi."

The son of a postal clerk in Hangzhou, Fang was admitted to Beijing University in 1952, at age 16, to study theoretical physics and nuclear physics. He became one of China's pioneer researchers in laser theory.

Democratic reforms

He burst into political prominence during pro-democracy student demonstrations of 1986-8 when he became China's most outspoken and eloquent proponent of democratic reform.

Fang was expelled from the Communist Party and fired from his university post. But he refused to be silenced and he received letters of support from across the country almost daily.

After the June 4, 1989, military crackdown that crushed the seven-week pro-democracy movement, Fang and his wife fled into the US Embassy.

Fang and Li had both been named in Chinese warrants that could have carried death sentences upon conviction. American diplomats refused to turn them over to Chinese authorities.

China's decision to allow the couple to leave the country a year later eliminated a major obstacle to bettering China-US relations, which had deteriorated badly after the crackdown, which left hundreds and perhaps thousands dead.

Fang had been a professor in Tucson for about 20 years. His academic focus was theoretical astrophysics and cosmology, the study of the universe's origin.

Source: Agencies