After Epic Escape, Chen Guangcheng Mired in Partisan U.S.

Following heated controversy last month over legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s departure from New York University, The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs reports a tangled political “tug of war over Mr. Chen and his superhero élan”:

[…] Mr. Chen’s political savvy has not translated well in the complex and fiercely partisan terrain he has encountered in the United States. Even before he could recover from jet lag in May 2012, Mr. Chen was besieged by human rights activists, opponents of abortion and an array of politicians from both parties eager to harness the celebrity wattage of the man who stood up to the Chinese Communist Party.

[…] Friends of Mr. Chen say that he has been eager to solicit others’ advice, but that he has often been swayed by the last person with whom he spoke. Although they describe him as fiercely principled, they say he may have overestimated his ability to navigate the partisan shoals of American domestic politics. “Chen often told me he had no interest in siding with the Democratic or Republican Party, but that he was on the side of democracy and freedom,” said Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident who frequently speaks with him on Skype. “I think that maybe he got in over his head.” [Source]

Jacobs reports that in the wake of the NYU controversy, funding for a possible replacement post at Fordham University has fallen through. Critics of the conservative Christian clique allegedly manipulating Chen have suggested that this might be precisely their aim, as it would steer him instead towards another position at the more conservative Witherspoon Institute. As Chen’s mentor Jerome Cohen told the South China Morning Post, “I think this publicity campaign [against NYU] is designed to destroy any alternatives for him. They are very sophisticated people who know how to exploit him.” The prospect has unsettled many in light of Witherspoon’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage and parenting, but Chen is apparently unfazed. According to ChinaAid founder Bob Fu—himself accused of being one of the key conspirators—Chen said of the institute that “they are principled. And if they are willing to support the struggle for freedom, then that’s good enough for me.”

Whatever else, Chen has not faded into obscurity as many feared when he left China last year. In a video at The New York Times, Jacobs tracks Chen’s continuing high profile, demonstrated on a recent visit to Taiwan.