Chen Guangcheng Case Widens Political Rift

The rift over exiled legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s departure from New York University is deepening, with both defenders and detractors of his claims that NYU kicked him out for political reasons continuing to speak out. Chen, who is currently in New York, has not made any public comments after the release of his controversial press release.

Following Chen’s claims, some of his supporters have claimed that NYU attempted to curtail Chen’s human rights related activities. Congressman Chris Smith has said that NYU interfered with his efforts to meet with Chen. From Reuters:

U.S. Representative Chris Smith, an outspoken supporter of Chinese dissidents since the 1980s, described repeated instances of various people he says were from NYU interfering in his attempts to meet with Chen.

NYU spokesman John Beckman in an email vigorously disputed the assertion that its representatives may have been involved in improper interference or control of Chen during his meetings with lawmakers and others, stressing that anyone present was there to help Chen at his request. [Source]

Several people who worked closely with Chen as he settled in New York publicly contradicted his version of events. Mattie Bekink, a lawyer and China specialist who was hired as a consultant by NYU, denies that Chen is being kicked out as she had personally informed him at the beginning of his stay that his tenure at NYU would last one year. The Wall Street Journal published her statement:

NYU provided Mr. Chen with a soft landing as a fellow in the Law School and helped him adjust to life in the United States. The plan was to support him and his family for a year and then assist them in making more permanent arrangements. That was always the understanding, and Mr. Chen was informed of this and was very grateful. NYU never committed to supporting the family indefinitely. The only thing that has changed is the passage of time.

It is a great shame that as his time at NYU comes to a close Mr. Chen chooses to malign his friends and supporters at the university with false statements. But his comments suggest that he is having a hard time accepting the reality of his new life. It is not the Chinese communist authorities who “want to make [him] so busy trying to earn a living that [he doesn’t] have time for human rights advocacy.” Rather it is life in capitalist America that requires individuals to support themselves. NYU’s extreme generosity has perhaps protected him from confronting this reality until now, but that level of largesse was never intended to continue indefinitely. [Source]

Chen’s press release was issued by Corallo Media Strategies, a Republican PR firm which is working for Chen on a pro bono basis, and distributed by the Christian group ChinaAid. On her blog China Law and Policy, Elizabeth Lynch wrote a lengthy post looking at attempts by the U.S. Christian right to command Chen’s message and linking it to broader trends in human rights policy in the U.S. Congress, which she believes has been “commandeered” by an anti-abortion agenda:

To pro-life advocates like Rep. Smith, Chen is an important figure. Chen, a self-taught lawyer, began his career by fighting for the rights of those with disabilities. Soon, Chen heard of other injustices in his village, especially forced abortions. Although China maintains a one-child policy, forced abortions and sterilizations are illegal under Chinese law. An investigation by Chen and lawyers from Beijing uncovered that forced abortions and sterilizations were common, especially in rural areas. By the summer of 2005, Chen filed multiple lawsuits in his village Linyi on behalf of many of the victims.

It was those forced abortion cases that caused Chen to become a martyr, being arrested and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. Even after his official release, the Linyi authorities illegally kept him under house arrest. But it was these forced abortion cases that also brought him to the attention of the pro-lifers in the United States. Although Chen has stated that he is against forced abortions and less against abortions themselves (see NPR interview at 9:51), his lawsuits represent an important stepping stone for pro-lifers – ridding China of the one-child policy. And there is always hope that he can be converted to a pro-life stance. [Source]

The accusations against Bob Fu, head of ChinaAid, took a sinister turn Thursday when Reuters reported that an iPad and iPhone that Fu and his wife gave Chen upon his arrival were loaded with surveillance software:

Among the first visitors in May 2012 to the New York apartment Chen had moved into with his family after a dramatic escape from house arrest in China was Heidi Cai, the wife of activist Bob Fu. She brought an iPad and iPhone as gifts.

The devices were screened by NYU technicians within a few days and were found to have been loaded with hidden spying software, said Cohen, who arranged the fellowship for Chen at NYU Law School, helping defuse a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China after Chen took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“These people supposedly were out to help him and they give him a kind of Trojan horse that would have enabled them to monitor his communications secretly,” said Cohen.

[…] “This is the first time I’ve heard of spyware,” said Fu, who was in southeast Asia when his wife delivered the devices. He called the allegations “ridiculous” and “like a 007 thing.” [Source]

ChinaAid has issued a statement about the charges and has requested an FBI investigation into the alleged spyware.

For its part, the official Global Times took advantage of the opportunity to attempt to discredit Chen in their English edition, calling him a “chess piece” in U.S. politics.

Even without controversies like this one, the adjustment from life as a dissident in China to exile in the U.S. is challenging on many levels. The Atlantic compares Chen’s current situation to that of Wei Jingsheng, who was released from 18 years in prison in 1997 and put on a flight for New York, where he has remained ever since. Like Chen, Wei also expressed concerns about Chinese government interference in U.S. universities:

This, too, is a viewpoint shared by both Chen and Wei: that the Chinese government exerts a growing, and malign, influence on American universities. But it’s far from clear whether this accusation is valid.

Schools in the United States have accelerated their engagement with China, both from admitting more Chinese nationals as well as by building satellite campuses in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However, according to Professor James Feinerman of Georgetown University, a person like Chen would have “no way of knowing the extent of NYU’s relationship with China”. Noting that Chen and Wei come from a society in which the government plays a large role in all levels of education, Feinerman notes that it’s only natural for a person like Chen to be suspicious that the same principle applies in the United States. [Source]

While no one has yet offered any concrete evidence demonstrating a link between NYU’s work in China and the university’s failure to renew Chen’s contract, some China scholars have expressed concerns about a more subtle pernicious influence in U.S. academia. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

While past debates about overseas partnerships have centered on protections for scholars and students at overseas campuses, the Chen case has brought the discussion home, raising the question of whether international engagement could have domestic consequences. Might institutions shy away from certain research? Could pressure from foreign governments have a chilling effect on their willingness to welcome certain scholars or speakers to the home campus?

[…] Scholars who have long worked in and studied China say that the news media’s portrayal of the Chen case may leave the American public with the impression that the Chinese government exerts overt, heavy pressure on academics. “It’s actually happening in a broader, deeper, more subtle way,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California at Riverside. “The question is: How much do American academics compromise?”

Too often, said Mr. Link, who has been blacklisted by the Chinese government because of his research on the Tiananmen Square protests, foreign academics and institutions may voluntarily curb their own speech or actions in order not to cross a political line. [Source]


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