Friends Like These: Chen Guangcheng in America

It has now been a year and a half since legal activist Chen Guangcheng staged his dramatic escape from illegal house arrest in Shandong and fled to the U.S. embassy, eventually landing in New York as a visiting scholar at the NYU Law School. Chen left NYU this spring under a cloud of controversy after he accused the university of succumbing to pressure from the Chinese government to terminate his contract there, an accusation the university and affiliated supporters of Chen have denied.

Reuters has published a lengthy and detailed account of Chen’s first year in the U.S. and the convoluted relations between him, NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen, and Christian activist Bob Fu:

It was never going to be straightforward for a so-called barefoot lawyer from rural China to find his feet on Manhattan asphalt. Chen thought he’d just be studying law. He ended up also getting a crash course in America’s culture wars. It was a predicament that would define his first year in the United States, where he found himself depending on the guidance of people who made no secret of the fact they did not entirely trust one another and were unable to cooperate.

Chen speaks little English, and so relies on others to translate his words. He was blinded by a childhood fever, and so relies on others to lead him around unfamiliar spaces. He had never lived outside China, and so depended on others to describe the ways of his new home. But America can seem a very different place when viewed from Midland, Texas, than it does from New York. Much of his time here can be seen as a battle, gradually ceded by those at NYU, over who could be considered the most careful custodian of his voice and his surest guide.

At first, that role belonged to Cohen. Besides avoiding abortion talk, Cohen told Fu that day in the park that he also thought Chen should steer clear of politicians, at least in public, until the 2012 presidential election had passed. He worried that Chen’s voice might be easier to dismiss if it came with a religious or partisan echo.

“Maybe he wanted to build a united front with me,” Fu says of Cohen, “and maybe he already put me in the column of pro-life, religious, evangelical, right-wing – you know, I don’t know this mentality.”

If there ever was an alliance between Fu and Cohen, it dissolved within days of Chen arriving in New York. [Source]

Read more about Chen’s journey to the U.S. and his first year in New York, via CDT:

- Chen Guangcheng Escaped, In Hiding & On YouTube
- A Car Chase, Secret Talks and Second Thoughts
- Is Chen Guangcheng “Pro-Life”?
- Chen Guangcheng, NYU and Academic Freedom
- Chen Guangcheng’s Next Steps
- Dispute Deepens Over Chen Guangcheng’s NYU Departure
- All CDT posts about Chen Guangcheng, dating back to 2005.

November 25, 2013 1:00 PM
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