Dispute Deepens Over Chen Guangcheng’s NYU Departure

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng released a statement on Sunday evening confirming reports that New York University had given him until the end of the month to leave the school, citing “unrelenting pressure” placed on NYU by Chinese authorities as the main reason for his departure. The Wall Street Journal published the full text of Chen’s statement:

1. It is true that New York University has asked us to leave before the end of June.

2. In fact, as early as last August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University, so much so that after we had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us.

3. The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back. Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime. [Source]

The New York Post originally reported last Thursday that NYU was booting Chen under pressure from Chinese bureaucrats who had approved its plans to build a campus in Shanghai, though a university spokesman denied that outside influence played a role in the decision. Jerome Cohen, the NYU law professor who helped to orchestrate Chen’s relocation to the United States after he escaped house arrest in China last year, also called the New York Post story “highly distorted.” From The Washington Post:

“My understanding with the Chens was that NYU could guarantee him one year in order to get their feet on the ground and transition to a more permanent position,” Cohen said in an e-mail from China, where he often travels, adding, “I am grateful to the university administration for its extraordinary generosity, which could not reasonably be expected to go on indefinitely.”

[...]Cohen said that he had “never heard a word from anyone, including Chinese diplomats” suggesting that the Chinese government was pressuring NYU to end Chen’s tenure there. The New York Post story alleged that NYU was expelling Chen from its campus to satisfy demands from Beijing and to ease the approval process for an NYU campus planned for Shanghai. [Source]

Bob Fu, one of the activists who helped Chen flee to the United States, told Barbara Demick of The Los Angeles Times that “American universities are out chasing the Chinese dollar” and speculated that NYU could have made the decision even in the absence of direct pressure from Beijing. Still, the South China Morning post reported that Chen did not respond to a reporter’s request for evidence backing his claims, and NYU issued its own statement on Sunday denying any involvement by the Chinese governmentFrom Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times:

[...]“We are very discouraged to learn of Mr. Chen’s statement, which contains a number of speculations about the role of the Chinese government in N.Y.U.’s decision-making that are both false and contradicted by the well-established facts,” John Beckman, a university spokesman, said in the statement. He said the university was “puzzled and saddened” by Mr. Chen’s accusations but that it would continue to help him and his family.

The university insists that Mr. Chen’s law school fellowship was always meant to be for one year, and those who have worked closely with him in recent months said he understood the time limitations of a financial arrangement that even Mr. Chen acknowledged was extremely generous. The fellowship’s end, Mr. Beckman said, “had nothing to do with the Chinese government — all fellowships come to an end.”

Mr. Chen said the school had given him until the end of June to vacate the faculty apartment in Greenwich Village where he and his family have lived since arriving in the United States in May 2012. [Source]

Where will Chen head next? The Financial Times reported earlier this month that Chen may join Fordham University’s School of Law as a visiting scholar at a human rights program. Chen has also reportedly received an offer from the Witherspoon Institute, a New Jersey-based pro life think tank, though Bob Fu of ChinaAid told Reuters that Chen has not yet made a decision.

Updated: Jerome Cohen has responded to Chen’s statement in an interview with Foreign Policy:

Foreign Policy: Is there any connection between NYU Shanghai and Chen Guangcheng?

Jerome Cohen: We’ve tried to keep it quite separate. I have not been involved in setting up the Shanghai campus — it was easy for me, therefore, to take on the Chen thing.

The irony of this whole thing is that I share a concern of [the Chinese government interfering in institutions] outside of China, but I always try to do it on the basis of evidence and facts. What concerns me here is that the New York Post, or something that Congressman Christopher Smith says, or NYU faculty opposed to [NYU President John] Sexton who don’t have anything to do with China, or Chen’s statement, no one has given one fact [to show that] Chen has been restricted or not done much at NYU. It’s all nonsense!

You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. NYU has been extraordinarily generous to the Chens, and I’ve been grateful for the support. [Source]

Updated: Cohen spoke more strongly in an email quoted by Jeremy Page, Josh Chin and Sophia Hollander, who explored the apparent tug-of-war over Chen at The Wall Street Journal.

“Mr. Chen seems to be taking advice from a group that thrives on accusation, rumor, suspicion, gossip and malice,” Mr. Cohen said in an email. “So far not a single fact has been adduced to support their allegations” about New York University, he said. Mr. Cohen didn’t say who was in the group allegedly advising Mr. Chen.

Religious conservatives close to Mr. Chen said that NYU had made it difficult for him to have private meetings without school officials present, discouraged him from accepting awards because it might anger the Chinese, and retaliated after he made public appeals on behalf of his nephew, who he claims is being tortured by Chinese officials.

[…] One person close to Mr. Chen suggested that his statement might compromise offers from other schools and push him toward the Witherspoon Institute.

Some members of the human-rights community have long expressed concern that Mr. Chen could be co-opted by antiabortion Christian groups in the U.S. Such groups, they say, tend to cast Mr. Chen as an antiabortion crusader, emphasizing his fight against China’s one-child system without placing it in the context of his general efforts to promote rule of law in the country. [Source]

On Twitter, Rectified.name‘s Will Moss suggested that recent developments show “an uncomfortable, public transition from idealized symbol to actual person“.

At The New Yorker, meanwhile, Evan Osnos focused on the broader context of the emerging complications faced by educational institutions as they pursue deeper involvement in China.

There is much we don’t know about this case, and people racing to blame one side or the other have already found the story to be more complicated, so I’ll stick to what we know, and that’s this: the outcome will be watched very closely not only at N.Y.U.—whose global expansion has polarized its faculty—but at a range of other schools that are developing programs and campuses in China, including Duke, Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. Going east, to China or elsewhere, has already presented schools with a range of new puzzles. What do you do when student expression that would be protected in the United States breaks local regulations in Abu Dhabi or Shanghai? What do you do when your principles as an institution conflict with the need to keep up a relationship with a foreign country?

One of the few things we can say for sure is that there will be more cases like Chen’s. In China, Chen proved to be one of the country’s most determined voices for human rights and rule of law; in America, he may have now sparked a debate, far larger than his own case, about how American institutions will face new diplomatic challenges as they deepen their ties to China. We can be sure that Chen will be a vocal part of that debate. “Whether it was the dangers I faced in China or the current momentary difficulties we face,” he wrote in his statement, “I will never bow my head to evil or to lies.” [Source]