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Chen Guangcheng speaks at a press conference announcing his new fellowships.
Photo by J.C. Derrick
Chen Guangcheng speaks at a press conference announcing his new fellowships.

Blind Chinese activist gets a new beginning

China | Chen Guangcheng starts a new chapter in the United States with fellowships at three ideologically different organizations

WASHINGTON—Chen Guangcheng—the Chinese human rights activist who escaped unlawful house arrest in China and fled to the United States last year—has accepted positions with three U.S. organizations, allowing him to continue his work for at least the next three years.

Chen, whom WORLD profiled in July, will split time between The Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank based in Princeton, N.J., The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice in Concord, N.H. The three organizations declined to comment on how Chen would be compensated but confirmed the three-year associations began in September.

“It is my greatest honor and pleasure to work with three distinguished institutions,” Chen said through a translator.

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Wednesday’s announcement at the National Press Club came more than three months after the blind dissident’s law fellowship with New York University (NYU) came to a controversial end. Chen accused NYU officials of forcing him from the position to protect their interest in a multi-million dollar extension campus that opened in Shanghai last month. NYU officials denied the allegations, and said Chen’s fellowship was intended to last only one year.

On Wednesday, Chen deflected questions about his departure from NYU, preferring instead to talk about the “new beginning” with the three groups. He expressed appreciation to NYU, law professor Jerome Cohen, and the public at large for their support after his escape. “We are grateful for the kindness of the American people,” he said. “With the support and aid of numerous American kind-hearted people I’m sure the seeds of freedom and democracy will take root in China … and eventually bear beautiful fruit.”

The controversy over Chen’s departure severely strained relations between NYU and Chen. Cohen—who had been a close adviser to Chen—accused conservative politicians and some evangelicals of co-opting the activist for pro-life and conservative causes.

It was a strange accusation: Though Chen hasn’t argued against legalized abortion in America, he is an ardent opponent of forced abortion in China. That activism landed him in a Chinese prison and then brutal home confinement. Pro-life groups say Chen’s activism naturally overlaps with their own concerns, though a slew of pro-life organizations told WORLD in July they hadn’t reached out to Chen to work with him.

When reports circulated earlier this summer that Chen might accept a position with The Witherspoon Institute, Cohen said a partnership with the conservative think tank would “diminish his stature in the U.S.”

Chen and leaders from all three organizations—which include views across the political spectrum—pushed back against the notion that he is a pawn of any ideology. The leaders said their groups won’t require Chen to espouse or defend certain positions on social issues.

“We have a big problem, not only in this country but I think globally, where we are bifurcating the world into black and white, and left and right,” former Ambassador Richard Swett, a former Democratic congressman now with the Lantos Foundation, told WORLD after the event. “There is absolutely no reason for [human rights] to be a partisan issue. It’s absurd.”

Chen said he will remain focused on pushing China toward democratization and a move toward constitutional government. “The threat of Communist China to the free world is very clear,” he said, adding that he hoped more people would come forward with their stories about the regime.

Chen, who appeared with his wife, said his nephew is still imprisoned in China and has developed problems with his appendix. His brother’s Internet service has not been restored after authorities cut it off a month ago. Chen said the Communist Party is “worried and fearful,” because they are losing the ability to control information.

The groups announced Chen will deliver two public speeches this fall: one at Princeton University on Oct. 16 and another at the University of New Hampshire School of Law on an undetermined date.

As for Cohen, the NYU professor told Reuters he was happy for Chen and wished him the best. When the agency asked about his comments regarding a Witherspoon affiliation diminishing Chen’s stature, Cohen replied: “That’s been my view, but I’ve been wrong before. Who knows?”

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