Cover Story
LIMPING AWAY: Chen at New York University in June 2012.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux
LIMPING AWAY: Chen at New York University in June 2012.

Double jeopardy

China | Arrested, tortured, and imprisoned in China, activist attorney Chen Guangcheng discovers escape to America can lead to more threats and intimidation

Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

On a dark night in Shandong Province last April, Chen Guangcheng quietly scaled the wall behind his heavily guarded home, evaded his round-the-clock surveillance, and launched one of the most daring escapes in recent history. 

The self-educated Chinese human rights attorney—blind since childhood—walked alone for some 20 hours, climbed more walls, broke a foot, hid in the darkness, and finally hitched a ride to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

It wasn’t Chen’s first courageous act. For months in 2005, the attorney traveled village to village in his home province collecting testimony for an extraordinary effort: Chen amassed the first class-action lawsuit against Chinese officials for their brutal practice of forced abortions and sterilizations under the country’s one-child policy.

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Authorities jailed Chen for four years. After his release, the activist and his wife endured beatings, torture, and harassment during two years of arbitrary house arrest until the night Chen escaped and limped into the safety of the U.S. Embassy. 

One year later, the activist is limping away from New York University (NYU)—the school where Chen, his wife, and their two young children, ages 7 and 11, found refuge in the United States after their remarkable flight to safety.

The parting isn’t amicable.

When Chen, 41, arrived in the United States last May, NYU officials offered him a fellowship to study law at the Manhattan-based school. The fellowship included housing, a stipend, and other services vital for a family with significant challenges: Chen is blind, doesn’t speak English, and had never been to the U.S.

In June of this year, Chen dropped a bombshell: He said NYU officials were severing his relationship with the school because of “great, unrelenting pressure” from the Chinese government. His fellowship ended on June 30. 

NYU officials deny Chen’s claim. They say they told Chen in writing last October his fellowship would last only a year, and they insist Chinese authorities never mentioned the activist or pressured them. Chen hasn’t offered public evidence for his claims, or granted interviews on the subject, including to WORLD. 

But the summer saga has strange timing. As Chen leaves NYU, the school is about to launch a landmark endeavor: It’s set to open a degree-granting campus in Shanghai this month—funded largely by the Chinese government. 

NYU officials say Chen’s departure isn’t related to their interests in China. But the activist’s first year of freedom in America raises questions about China’s influence on U.S. academia, and whether dissidents like Chen, after taking refuge in the United States, must battle the intense pressures they came here to flee.

Chen’s claims about NYU came three days after The New York Post first reported that NYU broke ties with Chen because of pressure from the Chinese government. The paper cited unnamed sources saying the school was worried about its new Shanghai campus.

Chen responded with his own statement: He said the report was true. In a June 16 statement—released through a spokesman at Corallo Media Strategies—the activist claimed the Chinese government applied pressure to NYU as early as last August, and said NYU officials began discussing his departure with him just three months after his arrival. 

In an email interview, NYU spokesman John Beckman said the school had discussed a yearlong fellowship with Chen after his arrival, but said Chinese officials didn’t influence the length of Chen’s stay. 

The controversy might have ended as an unfortunate feud between Chen and NYU, but it grew deeper, as at least one NYU professor responded with his own accusations. Jerome Cohen—a respected NYU law professor, China scholar, and longtime advocate of Chen—cited Chen’s conservative contacts in the United States and said they were manipulating him to support a pro-life agenda. Chen has spoken against forced abortion in China, but not legalized abortion in the U.S.

After some conservatives, including Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said they believed Chen’s statement about NYU, Cohen told The Daily Beast: “They are trying to make him the poster boy for their anti-abortion, anti-same sex [marriage] agenda.”

‘They are trying to make him the poster boy for their anti-abortion, anti-same sex [marriage] agenda.’ —Jerome Cohen

But some of the human rights activists closest to Chen aren’t pro-life advocates. One, Bob Fu, leads ChinaAid, an organization advocating for persecuted Christians in China. The group addresses forced abortion in China, but not abortion in the United States.

Rep. Chris Smith is a strong advocate for pro-life causes in Congress, but his work on China has been focused on the one-child policy, forced abortions, and human rights issues. (Representatives from national pro-life groups told WORLD they admire Chen’s work, but they haven’t tried to contact him.)


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