Follow-up to a story from last week: Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who fled China after he was imprisoned for criticizing the government’s policy of forced abortions, has released a statement in which he says the Chinese government pressured New York University into asking him to leave:
Recently, there have been some reports that my family and I are leaving New York University, and friends both in China and elsewhere abroad are very concerned about this. So I want to especially thank my friends. At the same time, I want to explain a few things with regard to what’s happened:1. It is true that New York University has asked us to leave before the end of June.2. In fact, 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.3. 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.4. I’m very grateful to NYU for its help when my family was in a difficult period and for its good support of us when we first arrived in the United States. We thank Professor Cohen and other friends for trying their best to help us. This assistance has allowed us to have a smooth transition to the United States. For this, we have always wanted to thank the president of NYU in person. Regrettably, to date, we still have not had the chance to meet him. Although NYU has arranged many of our activities, to date, it has not arranged a meeting for us with the president. Therefore, I can only show my gratitude to him in this way.5. China’s Communist rulers hope to use these means to disturb our normal life, and even want to make me so busy trying to earn a living that I don’t have time for human rights advocacy, but this is not going to happen. Whether it was the dangers I faced in China or the current momentary difficulties we face, I will never bow my head to evil or to lies. I will always do everything I can for my compatriots back in China who still are not free and who are now being oppressed.Thank you!Chen Guangcheng
Professor Jerome Cohen, thanked for his help in Chen’s statement, is currently traveling in China, but he disputed the allegations of Chinese government pressure in an email quoted by the Washington Post:
“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 said in an e-mail from China, where he often travels, adding, “I am grateful to the university administration for its extraordinary generosity, which could not reasonably be expected to go on indefinitely.”
“No political refugee, even Albert Einstein, has received better treatment by an American academic institution than that received by Chen from NYU,” Cohen said.
Cohen said that he had “never heard a word from anyone, including Chinese diplomats” suggesting that the Chinese government was pressuring NYU to end Chen’s tenure there.
Cohen said it would be “very odd” for the Chinese government to let Chen move to the United States, then pull strings to get him kicked out of NYU in a pointless gesture of petty viciousness, since Chen probably won’t have much difficulty finding another school to study at.
NYU has responded to Chen with an official statement of its own, saying it was “puzzled and saddened” by his allegations. From CNN:
“From the beginning, NYU was happy to welcome Mr Chen and his family to the US and to help them embrace the beginning of their new life,” said the school’s spokesman John Beckman. “We are very discouraged to learn of Mr. Chen’s statement, which contains a number of speculations about the role of the Chinese government in NYU’s decision-making that are both false and contradicted by the well-established facts.”
According to the university, Chen’s fellowship had only ever been designed as a one-year assignment.
“Mr. 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,” Beckman said.
“Mr. Chen now has two extremely attractive offers for his next institutional affiliation. We began talking with the Chens about the coming transition in their living arrangements months ago, not because of some fictional ‘pressure’ from China, but so that they could use the months to make their transition a smooth one. It is disappointing to us that that period was not used more wisely.”
The Chinese foreign ministry, through spokesman Hua Chunying, seasoned its denial with a dash of snark: “As far as I know, Chen Guangcheng went to study abroad as an ordinary Chinese citizen after completing formalities in accordance with law. I’m not aware of (the situation you mentioned) — I’m not sure if you got wrong information or Chen Guangcheng is fabricating stories.”
The L.A. Times quotes some Chen supporters who believe the Chinese government is involved in the decision. One of his friends concedes that his fellowship was only guaranteed for one year, but suggests Beijing might have exerted pressure to keep him from extending it:
Chen’s supporters link the university’s decision to a new campus it is opening this year in Shanghai. The university, run along with East China Normal University, is being billed as the first jointly run Chinese-American university that will be able to award degrees. The first class of 300 students is supposed to start in the fall, with a total enrollment of 3,000 expected eventually.
“American universities are out chasing the China dollar and are very reluctant to work with dissidents who have a strong voice in China,” Bob Fu, a Texas-based activist who helped Chen flee to the United States, said in a statement. “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.”
[…] A friend of Chen’s said that the fellowship at NYU was originally supposed to be for one year, but that Chen, as of a few weeks ago, when they last spoke, was hoping to extend it.
“The university has been extremely kind to him,” said the friend, who asked not to be quoted by name. “It is not easy for a university to have a dissident. They are fighting spirits by nature.”
According to the L.A. Times, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee chair Christopher Smith (R-NJ) is considering a hearing on whether China is applying this sort of pressure against American universities. Presumably both Chen Guangcheng and NYU officials would be asked to testify at such hearings.