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.
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.)
Steven Mosher, head of the Population Research Institute and a leading outspoken critic of China’s one-child policy, calls Cohen’s accusations “a red herring.” Mosher traveled to China in 1979 as “a liberal and an atheist” to study the country’s one-child policy, and he was horrified by what he saw: forced abortions of full-term infants.
Mosher—now a pro-life Catholic and father of nine—says Chen’s work transcends discussions of political divides: “When someone forces a woman to have an abortion … that’s not a pro-life or a pro-choice issue. It’s both. Her choice has been violated and a life has been taken.”
Still, some at NYU haven’t hesitated to pressure Chen not to make common cause with pro-life advocates: Cohen said if Chen accepted a potential offer from the conservative Witherspoon Institute, it would “diminish his stature in the U.S.” (Cohen’s office referred questions for this story to NYU spokesman Beckman, but Beckman didn’t respond to inquiries about Cohen’s statements.)
Jean-Philippe Beja, professor at the French Centre on Contemporary China, told the South China Morning Post: “If you appear to be siding with right extremists, it will hurt your image.”
Chen hasn’t indulged the rhetoric. He told the Sunday Morning Post in Taipei: “Left or right, as long as they’re concerned about human rights, I will collaborate with them.”
But collaborating hasn’t been easy given NYU pressure. Dennis Halpin, a former staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he spent weeks trying to arrange for Chen to testify before the congressional committee after his arrival in the U.S. last May.
Halpin said NYU staffers only let him speak to Chen once, and they eventually told him Chen didn’t want to testify. “It was sort of ironic,” said Halpin. “This man had been held under house arrest in China. … Then he comes here, and we were thinking, ‘He’s incommunicado again.’”
Rep. Chris Smith said during a meeting in Washington, he insisted on talking with Chen alone, away from the NYU translator. The congressman said the translator eventually came back into the room and declared, “This meeting is over.”
Smith also said Chen told him NYU staffers were upset over his appearances in Washington. Though Chen didn’t testify before Congress, he did travel to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers.
Standing at a podium last August with Smith, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Chen told reporters: “Great cruelty has resulted from efforts to maintain social stability [in China], resulting in a situation in which there is no ethics, rule of law, or justice.”
Smith said Chen told him after the August appearance, NYU officials told him things were “not going well.”
By spring, Chen did testify before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in April, and told lawmakers about Chinese authorities’ escalating persecution of his family members still in China. (After Chen’s escape, authorities arrested his nephew on spurious charges, and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment.)
Chen also held up a packet of papers with a list of Chinese authorities he said were “corrupt officials” who had persecuted his family or facilitated thousands of forced abortions.
A few weeks later, Chen met with Pelosi during a series of meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Bob Fu of ChinaAid translated for Chen during the meeting, and says Chen told her about tensions at NYU.
Fu says Pelosi immediately called Cohen at NYU, and during the conversation asked Cohen if China was a threat to the school. Pelosi’s communication director didn’t return repeated requests asking the congresswoman to confirm or deny the account.
NYU spokesman Beckman says NYU staff didn’t restrict Chen’s movements or meetings over the last year, and he points to the wide range of events Chen attended across the country and overseas. Beckman also says Chen’s appearances on Capitol Hill had nothing to do with his length of stay: “Frankly, we have been puzzled and saddened to see the assistance provided to Mr. Chen characterized so incorrectly.”
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Cohen put it more bluntly: “You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
‘When someone forces a woman to have an abortion … that’s not a pro-life or a pro-choice issue. It’s both. Her choice has been violated and a life has been taken.’ —Steven Mosher
One of the growing realities in American academia is that China is one of the hands feeding it.
American universities have long had successful exchange programs with China and study centers in the country. But a handful of schools have opened satellites or joint campuses with other Chinese universities.
Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University have operated a joint campus for more than 25 years. Duke University plans to open a joint campus with Wuhan University some 40 miles west of Shanghai in 2014. Bloomberg News reported the city of Kunshan would spend an estimated $260 million to build the campus. Duke’s share over six years: $43 million. NYU is set to open its campus in Shanghai next month. The Wall Street Journal reported the local Chinese government agreed to cover construction and educational costs, and estimated the Chinese investment in the 15-floor NYU Shanghai university campus at $104 million.
The Shanghai campus is NYU’s second international site. The school opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2010, with heavy subsidies from its government. The United Arab Emirate’s initial investment was $50 million for the luxury campus, but NYU President John Sexton said the subsidies would go far higher.
The Abu Dhabi arrangement rankled some NYU faculty. They worried about entanglement with a repressive regime, and wondered about academic freedoms. They said the school was spreading itself too thin. They complained the process didn’t seem transparent.
Such tumult hasn’t marked the Shanghai campus opening, and NYU officials say the school has agreements to ensure academic freedom. But concerns persist. For example, in May the Chinese Communist Party reportedly banned the discussion of seven subjects in university classrooms, including citizen rights, freedom of the press, and judicial independence.
Cary Nelson, a past president of the American Association of University Professors, told the Chronicle of Higher Education college officials are “spinning fantasies if they think that’s not a problem.”
Other problems can develop stateside as schools try to attract a burgeoning number of Chinese students to their U.S. campuses. More than 194,000 Chinese students enrolled in American universities in 2011. That’s up 23 percent from the previous year. NYU hosts the third highest number of international students in the country.
Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California, Riverside, says connections to China can foster a dynamic of “induced self-censorship” for those who fear backlash—especially students or scholars who need to travel to China for their studies or their careers.
Link knows the risks firsthand. After writing extensively about China, including some of the country’s human rights abuses, Chinese officials barred him from entering the country. Link says authorities turned him around at the Beijing airport in 1996. He hasn’t returned since.
He’s not alone: The Chinese government has blacklisted other American professors who have written controversial works about China’s government, including 13 professors who contributed to Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, a 2004 book about the Muslim separatist movement in Xinjiang province.
The professors—dubbing themselves the “Xinjiang 13”—said officials at their universities were reluctant to press Chinese authorities about their travel bans. Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., told Bloomberg in 2011 colleges are “so eager to jump on the China bandwagon, they put financial interests ahead of academic freedom.”
Link says self-censorship can be subtler. He had a colleague who wouldn’t appear on a news program to discuss China because she worried it would affect her visa.
He described a graduate student during his time at Princeton who wanted to write about Chinese democracy for his thesis. His adviser squelched the idea, saying he could jeopardize his chances at traveling to the country. “That’s the kind of thing that happens,” says Link. “And I see an example of that once or twice a month.”
(Earlier this year, Fordham law professor Wesley Smith noted that the deans of leading law schools in the U.S. met with Chinese law professors in Beijing in 2011, but didn’t express concern over a brutal crackdown on Chinese human rights attorneys.)
Link says schools with joint campuses in China aren’t always “clear-headed” about what they’re getting into: “There’s no doubt that Beijing’s aim is to influence American scholarly opinion. … If you can get scholars to self-censor, they’re going to write about China in ways that are more acceptable to the Chinese government.”
Steven Mosher’s writings weren’t acceptable to the Chinese government or to Stanford University. Mosher thought his colleagues would be horrified to read his accounts of forced abortions in China when he returned to California in 1981. They weren’t.
Instead, Mosher says the Chinese government successfully pressured Stanford to withhold his doctoral degree because of his exposure of forced abortions as part of a one-child policy that has now yielded 336 million abortions since 1971.
Mosher says his Christian conversion began in the forced abortion rooms of China: “I saw hell open up before me.” He still thinks pro-life supporters are carrying a mantle others don’t pursue: “The fact that pro-lifers have been outraged by the abuses Chen documented has not been matched by an equivalent amount of outrage on the left.”
Chen by all accounts remains outraged by the abuses he discovered while traveling to rural villages in 2005. The cases he recorded included women enduring forced abortions, villagers hiding in fields from family planning officials, and authorities beating the extended family members of women who had violated the one-child policy.
During his congressional testimony in April, when he held up a list of authorities who participated in forced abortions, Chen said: “These corrupt officials have blood on their hands.”
Where or how Chen will continue his work remains unclear heading into the fall academic year. NYU spokesman Beckman said an anonymous donor had offered some financial assistance for Chen as he left the school. The Witherspoon Institute wouldn’t comment on its reported offer to Chen.
Fordham University spokesman Robert Howe said an offer remained open for Chen to join the school as visiting scholar for one year, but he said the position would be unpaid: The donor who had pledged to fund Chen’s spot withdrew the offer in the wake of the NYU controversy.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Chen, said he couldn’t comment on whether Chen would apply for political asylum. (Corallo, a former Republican strategist, says he works for Chen pro bono through his Alexandria-based Corallo Media Strategies.) Since he entered the country on a student visa, it wasn’t clear what path he would pursue to remain in the country legally. The State Department also granted visas to Chen’s wife and two children, but it’s unclear what will be their status following the NYU stint as well.
But the blind attorney who taught himself the law and memorized rural Chinese footpaths so he could reach the victims of human rights abuses alone seems determined to continue. When a reporter asked Chen how persecution of his family back in China affects his work, Chen replied: “It strengthens my will to disclose the very evil and authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime. It makes me more determined to fight for human rights.”