Just a year after escaping China to start a new life in the United States, Chinese human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s future is in limbo again as university officials feud with right-wing lawmakers and members of the Christian human rights community over who is responsible for the fallout between Chen and NYU, the university that took him in.
The blind lawyer’s dramatic path to New York gripped the world’s attention during Hillary Clinton’s April 2012 visit to China for a major bilateral dialogue. After escaping house arrest in his hometown and making it all the way to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Chen’s plea for refuge overshadowed the summit and top State Department officials spent a week negotiating Chen’s permission to travel to the U.S. with his immediate family.
Chen’s travel was not billed as asylum. China allowed Chen to go to America to pursue his legal studies and the deal hinged on a major U.S. law school taking responsibility for Chen. NYU stepped up fill that role. Now, Chen is publicly accusing the school of forcing him out in response to what he called “great, unrelenting pressure” from Beijing, a claim NYU adamantly denies. But Chen’s public break last month was just the latest in a long string of incidents between NYU and the various interests that have been working on Chen’s behalf.
Some lawmakers and members of the Christian Chinese human rights community, who have made it their mission to advocate for Chen, allege that NYU has been controlling Chen’s every movement and keeping him from speaking out in a way that might raise tensions with Beijing.
“The mistreatment of Chen was NYU with the full acquiescence of the State Department,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the head of the House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee, told The Daily Beast.
Smith played a key role during Chen’s time holed up in the U.S. embassy, arranging for Chen to call live into a congressional hearing and publicly ask for the ability to leave China, which had the potential to upset the State Department’s delicate negotiations with the Chinese government. Smith has been holding hearings on Chen’s situation and Chen’s cause—ending the one-child policy and forced abortions—for years.
As soon as Chen arrived in the U.S., NYU tried to prevent Chen from testifying on Capitol Hill and then pressured him to avoid controversy after he finally testified, according to Smith. The pressure on Chen ramped up after he went to Capitol Hill to give a press conference in August 2012, according to Smith, and NYU told Chen he had to leave the school just after Chen testified before Smith’s committee April 9.
“April 11, that week, he was summoned and told you are out of here,” said Smith. “That’s not how to treat a world-class human-rights defender whose nephew is being tortured as we speak.”
Smith also alleges that Chen was constantly surrounded by minders who controlled his schedule and refused to leave his side. Smith believes those minders played a role in censoring Chen and stopping him from meeting with politicians and activists who are critical of Beijing, such as Smith.
“When I would talk to him at NYU there was always someone there. I would say, ‘Can we have a moment of alone time?’ and they would say ‘No’ in a loud voice,” he said.
Smith says that NYU is caving to Chinese pressure and abandoning Chen because they don’t want any problems opening up their new campus in Shanghai. “It’s the price of admission, but it doesn’t have to be,” he said.
Jerome Cohen, the 83-year-old NYU law professor who helped orchestrate the school’s hosting of Chen, called Smith’s claims outrageous and erroneous. Smith, said Cohen, is part of a group that’s trying to exploit Chen to attack China and the Obama administration, and promote pro-life policies.
“The impression that [Smith] tries to give, that we’ve been restraining Chen from talking, is preposterous,” he told The Daily Beast. “The last thing that I wanted to see was to see him embroiled in American politics. They are trying to make him the poster boy for their anti-abortion, anti-same sex [marriage] agenda. They are harming Chen and he has lost an enormous amount of support.”
The resentment between the school and the right-wing human-rights community over Chen’s case runs deep. There were problems as early as Chen’s arrival, when officials like Smith were not allowed to attend the welcome ceremony and not given early access to Chen.
Cohen believes that Chen is being led astray by Smith and figures like Pastor Bob Fu, the head of a Texas organization called China Aid, and a close personal friend of Chen. Chen would not have publicly accused NYU of caving to Chinese pressure if not for his friends like Fu, who have been waging a public campaign against Beijing for decades, said Cohen.
“I’ve been at NYU 25 years I’ve been a consistent critic of China. Nobody ever told me not to say this or that,” said Cohen. “Allegations should be supported by facts. If I saw any facts that NYU was forcing Chen out despite doing a huge service to him, I would speak up.”
NYU hosted Chen despite their pending business in Shanghai, taking a significant and brave risk, as Cohen tells it. Chen always knew it was to be a one-year deal, he said. NYU has supplied Chen with a residence in their staff dormitories, a weekly stipend for living expenses, and helped him get involved in various legal and academic projects, he said.
“Any university would try to minimize the consequences,” he said. “People assume that all universities must be cozying up to China for financial reasons, but NYU had different motives.”
In a statement, NYU Spokesman John Beckman called Chen’s accusations of Chinese influence at NYU “false and contradicted by the well-established facts.”
“Mr. Chen’s fellowship at NYU and its conclusion have had nothing to do with the Chinese government. All fellowships come to an end,” the statement said. “NYU believes it has been generous in supporting this family, and we are puzzled and saddened to see these false claims directed at us.”
Cohen is disappointed by Chen’s accusations but said that Chen was his own man and capable of making his own decisions.
“The State Department used to joke they freed him and he’s been biting the hand that was feeding him,” he said, adding that while attacking State may be in the interests of partisan Republicans in Congress it’s not in Chen’s best interests. Smith and Fu, Cohen argued, are making it still less likely that Beijing might negotiate for the release of Chen’s family still imprisoned in China, such as Chen’s nephew, who was arrested for attempted murder after fighting off intruders in his own house.
“People who are impartial should praise their support of Chen rather than turning it into an anti-Obama, anti–Hillary Clinton attack,” he said.
Chen’s “minders” were simply the aides that NYU provided for Chen to help him get around, especially when travelling, Cohen said. Smith and Fu are interested in provoking Beijing, but not all China critics agree that is a productive strategy.
“It annoys me that people don’t see that there could be many good reasons to cooperate with China on education,” he said. “We’ve got to deal with the real world and that involves bringing Chinese people along.”
The feud between Cohen and Smith and Fu reached a pinnacle last month when Cohen said that an iPad given to Chen by Fu contained Spyware. Fu told The Daily Beast he simply bought the iPad at the store and has no idea what Cohen is talking about.
Fu, who speaks to Chen on a regular basis, said that the allegations against NYU come from Chen directly.
“What I have heard from Mr. Chen over the past 12 to 13 months was that he had felt increasingly that NYU had been under relenting pressure from the Chinese government and every time when he speaks up for Chinese human rights and is critical of the Chinese government or when he tries to go to Congress to testify, NYU has taken increasing measures to pressure him,” Fu said.
NYU’s tactics ranged from subtle to aggressive, Fu said. For example, when Chen was in Washington to testify for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last July, he went completely missing along with his NYU handlers, said Fu.
“On that day I was not able to locate Chen at all. He was basically missing. Later that day, committee staff told me Chen was driven to an undisclosed location so nobody was able to communicate with him. So the hearing did happen but without Chen,” he said. “Up until today I don’t know where he was taken, who threatened him. What happened to him that day? I was really alarmed.”
When Chen raised his concerns about NYU and alleged Chinese pressure with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), it only made NYU more uncomfortable, according to Fu. He also alleges NYU discouraged him from accepting a Congressional Gold Medal that was being planned preliminarily in April.
“One day before he testified, NYU had a meeting and instructed him not to accept this award and said it will anger the Chinese government,” Fu said.
Fu, though, rejected the claim that his priority is to attack the Obama administration or promote his pro-life agenda.
“We are a nonpartisan human rights organization and of course I am a Christian pastor, but that doesn’t mean we are involved in U.S. politics. We are forbidden to do that,” he said. “Show me the evidence, Mr. Cohen.”
Cohen’s claims that Chen is being manipulated by the Christian right don’t match with what everyone knows about Chen, that he is strong willed and independent minded above all else, said Fu.
“That’s an insult to Mr. Chen’s intelligence,” said Fu. “What’s the point of making this a fight about pro-life or pro-choice. There’s nothing there for Mr. Chen.”
Chen must vacate his NYU apartment by July 15. NYU stopped paying his expenses some time ago, but Chen has gotten an advance from a book deal and is also supported by a “wealthy democratic donor,” said Fu. He is considering offers from other top universities, including Princeton and Fordham.
But Chen’s original plan, to go back to China to continue his work there and fight for the freedom of his family members, is farther from reach than ever. Rather than negotiating with Chen, over the past year the Chinese government has increased its efforts to round up his supporters and prosecute his relatives.
“This is going to make other universities hesitant to take the next guy,” Cohen said.