Zhang Lifa, Veteran Who Worked on China’s Nuclear Program, Dies at 76

Zhang Lifa, Veteran Who Worked on China’s Nuclear Program, Dies at 76

This obituary is part of a series about people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Zhang Lifa, a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army, felt pride in the years he spent working on China’s nuclear weapons program, even as his health faltered from the long-term exposure to radiation.

At 19, Mr. Zhang followed his father into the army, joining at a time when China was racing to build its first atomic and hydrogen bombs. He worked for six years on classified nuclear missions, including at a remote site called Plant 221, also known as China’s Los Alamos, in the northwestern province of Qinghai.

Mr. Zhang died on Feb. 1 at a hospital in Wuhan from complications of the coronavirus, his son, Zhang Hai, said. He was 76.

In January, after Mr. Zhang fell and broke his thigh bone, he traveled with his son from Guangdong, where they lived, to Wuhan, his hometown, for surgery. The virus was spreading in Wuhan at the time, but local officials were playing down the risk of human-to-human transmission, so Mr. Zhang proceeded with the trip.

Not long after he checked into the hospital, Mr. Zhang contracted the virus, his son said, and he died less than two weeks later. By then, the crisis had exploded into full view.

“If I had known the conditions, I would never have sent my father back,” Mr. Zhang’s son said. “Now I feel like sending him back was like sending him into the hands of death.”

Zhang Lifa was born in 1943 in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong and grew up in Wuhan. His father had fought in Mao Zedong’s Communist army against the Kuomintang during the Chinese Civil War, and he, too, felt an impulse to serve his country from a young age.

After his years working on the country’s nuclear program, Mr. Zhang left the army in 1968. He began to suffer from health issues caused by sustained exposure to radiation. He became deaf in one ear and had a weakened liver.

After jumping from job to job, Mr. Zhang became a delivery driver for a vocational school. He retired early, at 56, because of his illnesses.

“My father loved this country,” his son said. “He sacrificed his own health to develop its nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Zhang is survived by his son and a daughter, as well as a grandson. His wife died in 2009 from cancer.

Last year, Mr. Zhang was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. As Mr. Zhang’s condition rapidly deteriorated, the younger Mr. Zhang moved his father to Guangdong, where he lived, and quit his job in real estate to take care of his father full time.

In the months before Mr. Zhang’s death, his mind and memories began to fade. But at times, there were glimmers of his old patriotic self.

“Sometimes he envisioned himself back on the battlefield,” his son said. “He’d be shouting, ‘Let’s fight for our country!’”

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