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Did NYU Screw Over Its Famous Chinese Dissident?

Sussing out Chen Guangcheng’s allegations against his host

Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

One bright afternoon last May, Chen Guangcheng stepped out of a van in the driveway of an apartment building in Greenwich Village. One of China’s most famous dissidents—a blind aspiring lawyer who helped organize a class-action lawsuit over forced sterilizations related to China’s one-child policy—Chen was arriving in New York after a month-long diplomatic incident involving his daring, middle-of-the-night escape from house arrest and appearance, four days later, at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

A short Chinese man balancing himself on crutches (he had broken his foot in the course of the escape), he spoke briefly into a bouquet of microphones. To his right was a translator, a short Chinese woman. To his left was a six-foot, 82-year-old white American man wearing khakis, a navy sport coat, and a bow tie, who alternately smiled, applauded, and whispered in Chen’s ear. This was New York University Law Professor Jerome A. Cohen. Cohen was the first person Chen called when he arrived at the embassy, and is the reason Chen has resided in downtown Manhattan the past year.

Over the past few days, the happy relationship between Chen and NYU has dissolved into bitter recriminations and misunderstandings. Chen says he has been asked to leave NYU at the end of the month, and he has accused the university of succumbing to pressure brought by China’s government. NYU and Cohen, in tones more in sorrow than in anger, have denied this in the clearest possible terms, asserting instead that it was always understood that Chen’s fellowship at the school’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute was to be for a year. Meanwhile, the most strenuous defenders of his version of events are conservative evangelicals whose hawkishness on China tends to differ from the academic and legal China communities' approach, which stresses human rights but also is open to greater engagement.

Bob Fu of the evangelical group ChinaAid, a longtime champion of Chen’s, told me, “I was so surprised NYU denied [that it is bowing to Chinese pressure] so bluntly.” He added, “A number of conversations NYU leaders shared with Chen, both words and actions, showed that China’s pressure is real.” He said he has been in contact with Chen “all the time” in recent days.

Reached yesterday in Wuhan, a couple hundred miles west of Shanghai, for his take on what is going on, Cohen emailed, “Chen is taking advice and allegations from other sources.”

Last Thursday, the New York Post kicked off this story when it reported that NYU had “booted” Chen under pressure from the Chinese government. The claim seemed dubious—this was the same government that had allowed him to leave and go to NYU last year—and soon Cohen disputed it, noting in a widely dispersed email that the fellowship NYU extended to Chen had always been slotted for a year.

“My understanding with the Chens was that NYU could guarantee him one year in order to get their feet on the ground and transition to a more permanent position,” Cohen wrote. 

In a May 2012 television appearance, Cohen deflected a question about the length of Chen’s fellowship, though he did say, “We have visiting scholars for a month, a semester, a year.” A New York Times article from June of last year said that Chen would be a visiting scholar for an “indefinite period.”

An NYU spokesperson has insisted the same: “Chen’s fellowship at NYU and its conclusion have had nothing to do with the Chinese government. All fellowships come to an end. Even before his arrival, Mr. Chen’s fellowship was discussed as a one-year experience.”

Yet in a statement released Sunday, Chen explicitly accused NYU of bowing to Chinese intimidation. Though there are some rote words of gratitude toward the end, Chen charges, “as early as last August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University, so much so that after we had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us.” A subtext to this accusation is that NYU had been seeking formal Chinese approval for its new Shanghai campus (which it received in November).

Chen added, “The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back. Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime.”

Fu alleged that Cohen and others depend on China’s continued good graces in order to travel there and train lawyers and judges, as Cohen is doing presently.

Rep. Chris Smith, the socially conservative Republican from New Jersey, told the New York Post last Friday that Chen “was not treated well.” He argued, “I have no doubt it was pressure from the government,” adding, “He had a place, a physical place to stay,” but “contact was extremely limited and it was under the watchful eye of someone who could report on him.”

In a phone interview with Foreign Policy, Cohen insisted, “It’s all nonsense!”

Chen has been through unimaginable hardships: years of imprisonment and years more of house arrest; persecution at the hands of China’s repressive government; knowledge that over the past year, even as he and his immediate family have enjoyed the blandishments of freedom, his nephew has been jailed and allegedly denied essential medical treatment, and other members of his family intimidated. These experiences might help explain the discrepancy between Chen’s version of events and NYU’s.

Several people with knowledge of the situation insisted to me that the fellowship was always a one-year deal, and that Chen was notified of that many months ago (which he does not deny in his statement).

“I knew that it was a one-year thing when I first met him,” says a person who was at NYU Law and close to Chen. “I even talked with him, and said, ‘What are your plans for May?’ and he said he didn’t know. I knew he wanted to stay on and that Jerry Cohen wanted to keep him there, but the university didn’t want to pay for it.”

This person added, “He had a very nice apartment. He had his own office at the law school. They assigned a young American who spoke Chinese to work with him. It seems like they were treating him quite well.”

James Feinerman, a Georgetown Law professor specializing in China and a former student of Cohen’s (it is difficult to find people in the field of Chinese legal studies in the United States who aren’t former students and/or current friends of Cohen’s), also said that he had always understood the fellowship to be a one-year deal.

Regarding Chen’s charge that China’s government successfully bullies the U.S. academy, Feinerman replied, “I think it's pretty off the wall. Undeniably there are individuals who have been blacklisted by the Chinese government—people like Perry Link and Andy Nathan” (Link is at the University of California-Riverside, Nathan is at Columbia). But, Feinerman added, “Chen is saying that, from top to bottom, left to right, the whole academy is riddled, and I just don't think that’s true. I’ve written many critical things, have testified in Congress many times about human rights violations and legal shortcomings [and still receive a visa].”

As, Feinerman added, does Cohen, who in op-eds in South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal routinely takes China’s highest leaders to task. In 2011, for example, he noted that contra the leaders’ assertions, orders to persecute Chen came from Beijing, not locally.

He also noted that China formally approved NYU’s Shanghai campus in November—six months after Chen began his fellowship at NYU Law. “Although I have not been party to NYU's negotiations about the Shanghai campus, I have never heard a word from anyone, including Chinese diplomats, about the Chinese government putting pressure on NYU to terminate the Chens’ visit,” Cohen wrote.

Chen may be acting under the guidance of China hawks like Smith and Fu. Earlier this year, Chen testified at a hearing convened by the House Global Human Rights subcommittee, chaired by Smith; last year, at another hearing of this subcommittee, Chen spoke to members through Fu’s cell phone. (At the time, some accused Fu of having an overly partisan anti-Obama agenda, but Cohen praised him.) Mark Corallo, who several people close to the situation told me is Chen’s spokesperson, could not be reached for comment. (Corallo describes himself as a Republican.)

“American universities are out chasing the China dollar and are very reluctant to work with dissidents who have a strong voice in China,” says Fu in a statement on ChinaAid’s website. “It does not always have to be direct pressure from Beijing, there is also self-censorship, particularly if a college president believes their China campus or the future enrollment of Chinese students will be sabotaged.”1 Fu told me that his allegations of intimidation are based on things Chen has told him, and his advice to Chen has been that Chen should speak his mind.

The source at NYU told me that Cohen “didn’t want [Chen] to get too close to the religious right—Bob Fu, Chris Smith.”

During his time at NYU, Chen did several press interviews, a public interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, and several panels at NYU Law. I witnessed one last fall, and while I cannot confirm that there was no “watchful eye of someone who could report on him” present, I can report that hundreds of students and faculty packed into a room at NYU Law to hear Chen, alongside Cohen, opine harshly on China’s situation, and that questions were obviously not vetted and Chen’s “contact” was not “limited.” Chen demanded that China hold its leaders to the same standards as its citizens. “In China we have laws, but not the rule of law,” he said. 

NYU, which increasingly appears to be building itself less like a university and more like a for-profit corporation, is not the most sympathetic institution right now. And a blind, brave, righteous, and right Chinese dissident is even more sympathetic than NYU is unsympathetic. Having said that, my initial sense is that this is less simple than Chen is making it out to be. It would be great if NYU could extend some of the same generosity it has extended toward faculty in need of vacation homes to Chen. But I do not see enough evidence to suggest NYU’s (relative) parsimony in Chen’s case has anything to do with the Chinese Communist Party.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him at @marcatracy.

  1. In his statement, Chen also claimed that NYU President John Sexton never met with him. Sexton, who was previously dean of NYU Law, recruited Cohen to NYU more than 20 years ago. Feinerman, Sexton’s friend, speculated that Sexton wished to avoid being put in a position where he would have to turn down a request for the permanent extension of his arrangement. An NYU spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Correction: The article originally stated that Andrew Nathan, a professor at Columbia, taught at Harvard.