Tuesday, June 18, 2013
The circumstances of Chen Guangcheng's leaving New York University have been in the news lately and the subject of dispute. Essentially, Chen says he is being pushed out due to pressure on NYU from the Chinese government. (Here's his statement (web version here).) NYU says that the original arrangement was that he would come and be supported for a year, and the year is up. (Here's an interview with Jerome Cohen, and here's a good post from China Digital Times that puts the whole story together with links to all these souces.)
My impression is that NYU is more sinned against than sinning here; the one-year deal squares with my recollection, and I think it's beyond question that NYU has been quite generous to Chen during the time he's been there. If you believe that NYU has an obligation to look after Chen indefinitely, then of course you'll see him as being booted out, but I note that neither Chen nor anyone else has offered actual evidence, or even specific (as opposed to general) allegations, of Chinese pressure on NYU to get rid of him. Activist Bob Fu, for example, declines to identify any direct pressure from China, but still manages to imply that NYU did something discreditable: "There is also self-censorship, particularly if a college president believes their China campus or the future enrollment of Chinese students will be sabotaged." In other words, there are absolutely no facts that could prove Fu wrong. He just knows.
Prof. James Feinerman of Georgetown Law School has kindly permitted me to quote his post to the Chinalaw list on this subject:
I'm taking this in from London, where there's little to no interest in this development. However, I have several reactions to the news and to how it's become public. First of all, a little history - Months ago my colleagues and I at Georgetown were approached by Chen's "people" (yes, he has them), sounding us out about a move to Georgetown (and presumably, more importantly, DC). This set off certain "alarm bells" - why was he leaving or interested in leaving NYU? The pretext for his departure to the US less than a year earlier was the fellowship he received to study at NYU; would moving elsewhere upset that? We were assured that, No, he was just "reviewing his options," probably because the term of his stay was coming to an end after one year. Obviously, he's been checking elsewhere, if rumors of his departure for Fordham are true. That's just one reason not to buy his story that PRC interference has caused his "ouster" from NYU. Secondly, he's waited until the very end of his stay at NYU - the term of which was well known all along - to voice his first complaints about the mistreatment he's suffered. If this were an ongoing problem, why not previously? Third, along with others (such as both Don Clarke and I), Jerry Cohen and a host of China scholars in the US regularly write, speak and even testify before committees of the US Congress and other governmental bodies about China's human rights abuses, flawed rule of law and other shortcomings - rarely pulling our punches - and have faced no retaliation for doing so. We still get visas to visit the PRC, have regular interchange with Chinese colleagues and (to my knowledge, at least) have caused no undue problems for our home institutions with our activities. Notwithstanding this, I take [another contributor]'s point that a few Western academics have been targetted - Perry Link and Andy Nathan come immediately to mind. Old habits die hard among the Communist diehards.
We may have to remember back to the era of the Tiananmen dissidents - Wu'er Kaixi, Chai Ling and others - to find a good analog for Chen. They came to the US after the massacre, were lionized for a while as the heroes of the "Democracy Movement," and then faded from public attention in fairly short order. As that happened, they became vocal and bitter, complaining just like Chen, that they were betrayed, that the cushy welcome they received was evaporating as memories faded. In short, they learned (as Jerry Cohen liked to quip at East Asian Legal Studies lunches to the invited speakers) that "there is no free lunch." After a reasonable transition, they were supposed to find something to do, on their own. In Chen's case, he's had a pretty sweet deal - a year of housing in Washington Square, financial support, translators, educational opportunities if he chose. Understandably, he's unhappy. But biting the hand that fed you - well, for a year - makes Chen seem like an ingrate.
Finally, Chen mistakes what he knows (and what he knows works) in China for the way things work in the US. He assumes that the PRC government - or government in general - can make academics fall in line. How little he knows us. Nothing rankles the academy more than a heavy governmental hand - especially that of one viewed by most as a vile totalitarian autocracy - trying to wield influence. It's more likely to cause academics - even academic administrators - to react in opposition. We prize our freedom more than that. It's a shame he's failed to learn at least that much about the institution that has sheltered him and his family for the past 16 months or the country of his exile. This latest screed, however, is likely to backfire. Remember Solzhenitsyn? Despite his heroism, his Nobel prize, and his writerly brilliance, he was remembered more as a reactionary scold, ranting about the West while enjoying its perks. From various accounts, Chen also risks becoming a captive and a mouthpiece for the religious right, anti-abortion, and China-threat factions here in the US. His current story will resonate with them, but in the longer run it promises he will receive even less attention from influential mainstream opinion makers in this country.