Chen Guangcheng, NYU and Academic Freedom

Chen Guangcheng says that New York University asked him to leave because of pressure from Chinese authorities, but the university denies those claims. The dispute over his departure has nevertheless “added fuel to concerns over Beijing’s educational clout,” according to South China Morning Post, and one American lawmaker had harsh words to say about the university’s handling of Chen:

Representative Chris Smith, who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, said that New York University controlled Chen’s movements and tried to monitor the congressman’s conversations with the activist.

“That is not the way you treat a world-class human rights defender who has suffered torture and every other depravation to combat abuse in China. It really is a black mark against NYU,” Smith said.

Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said that US universities faced a “huge systemic problem”.

“I have no problem with higher education having a constructive engagement with China as long as you don’t gag human rights defenders. Frankly, you should be providing them with space; otherwise, wittingly or unwittingly, you’re enabling a dictatorship,” he said. [Source]

George Washington University’s Donald Clarke, however, thinks “NYU is more sinned against than sinning here.” He quotes Georgetown Law School’s James Feinerman, who doesn’t buy Chen’s allegations:

[…]Finally, Chen mistakes what he knows (and what he knows works) in China for the way things work in the US. He assumes that the PRC government – or government in general – can make academics fall in line. How little he knows us. Nothing rankles the academy more than a heavy governmental hand – especially that of one viewed by most as a vile totalitarian autocracy – trying to wield influence. It’s more likely to cause academics – even academic administrators – to react in opposition. We prize our freedom more than that. It’s a shame he’s failed to learn at least that much about the institution that has sheltered him and his family for the past 16 months or the country of his exile. This latest screed, however, is likely to backfire. Remember Solzhenitsyn? Despite his heroism, his Nobel prize, and his writerly brilliance, he was remembered more as a reactionary scold, ranting about the West while enjoying its perks. From various accounts, Chen also risks becoming a captive and a mouthpiece for the religious right, anti-abortion, and China-threat factions here in the US. His current story will resonate with them, but in the longer run it promises he will receive even less attention from influential mainstream opinion makers in this country. [Source]

Elizabeth Redden of Inside Higher Ed says that whether or not Chen’s departure can be traced to Chinese pressure, his allegations about US academic freedom “being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime” are worth noting:

“I think that’s basically right,” said Perry Link, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who is among the China scholars who have been blacklisted from obtaining visas to conduct research in China. Link did say, however, that the words “greatly threatened” seemed to him a little over the top. “It is a big problem, and it’s a long-term problem, and it’s a subtle problem. It’s gotten dramatized in the last few days as a university kicking out a blind human rights lawyer at the behest of a totalitarian government.” (Chen is blind.) “This is spectacular, almost Hollywood-ized, but that’s not the way it works. The influence problem is pervasive and serious but it doesn’t happen that way.”

“It happens when scholars are induced, whether for fear of not getting visas or because of the lure of getting money, to censor themselves and not raise questions that they otherwise would raise and to speak using words that they know would be acceptable in Beijing rather than words they would view as being more accurate,” said Link, who noted, for example, that the massacre in Tiananmen Square (a subject of his own research) is frequently described by scholars as an “event” or “incident” or even by a Chinese word meaning “tempest in a teapot.”

“Chen is absolutely right when he says that the Chinese government has influenced intellectual freedom in the West,” said Maochun Yu, a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. “On the other hand, this is not NYU’s problem. It’s a larger problem.” [Source]

Georgetown University’s James Millward similarly writes that the broader issue of academic freedom will continue to gain traction as U.S. and Chinese academic communities become more intertwined:

As we go forward, should more such incidents arise, here’s what both sides should do: China, please abandon counterproductive efforts to intimidate foreign institutions and scholars. Ham-fisted bullying only undermines the very soft power that was your goal in the first place, and ticks off the teachers who teach foreigners about China.

And deans and provosts at U.S. institutions: Don’t be craven about academic freedom. Join together with other institutions and take a firm, principled stand to support scholars. Don’t be afraid to do what NYU did in hosting a dissident or to take bold steps if China denies a visa to one of your professors. We are the No. 1 global brand in university education, largely because of our principles. Where else is China going to go? [Source]

Meanwhile, Chen weighs his next move – he reportedly has an offer to join Fordham University’s School of Law as a visiting scholar at a human rights program and another offer to join a pro-life think tank. Verna Yu at the South China Morning post writes today that Chen’s connections with pro-life and other right-wing groups has stoked concern that he has become a politicized figure:

Professor Jean-Philippe Beja, a senior researcher at the French Centre on Contemporary China, said exiled activists were political capital for a while after they arrived in the West but siding with one political camp would tend to diminish their credibility. “If you appear to be siding with right extremists, it will hurt your image,” Beja said. “The problem with exile is that you are isolated, and when you’re isolated, it’s easy to be taken advantage of.”

But Beja said it was understandable that someone like Chen, who went from being an oppressed activist to enjoying hero status in the US, might not fully understand the situation he was getting into. “From his village in Shandong to a place where he is put in high US politics is definitely a destabilising experience. It’s very hard for him … I’m sure there are people trying to convince him that’s the only way to carry on his advocacy.”

But Beja said he hoped Chen could still change his mind.  “This is a very sad episode but it’s too early to judge.” [Source]