Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), the legal advocate who challenged the Chinese government over its harsh family planning policies, is nothing if not a politically astute survivor. He outsmarted the phalanx of guards who kept him under house arrest and then made his way into the US embassy, setting off a diplomatic crisis that was resolved only after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton intervened and negotiated his freedom.
However, Chen’s political savvy has not translated well in the complex and fiercely partisan terrain he encountered in the US. Even before he could recover from jet lag in May last year, Chen was besieged by human rights activists, foes of abortion and an array of politicians from both parties eager to harness the celebrity wattage of the man who stood up to the Chinese Communist Party.
His sponsors at New York University (NYU) cautioned Chen to stay clear of a partisan minefield he did not understand.
“I told Chen there was a presidential election coming up and he should spend a year studying the American political landscape before wading in,” said Jerome Cohen, a law professor and close confidant.
That advice, friends say, never really sank in and Chen, 41, has found himself enmeshed in controversy. Backed by a coterie of conservative figures, Chen has publicly accused NYU of bowing to Chinese government pressure and prematurely ending his fellowship this summer. The university says the fellowship was intended to be for only one year. Some of those around Chen also accuse the university of trying to shield him from conservative activists.
The sparring has grown fierce, with NYU officials accusing one of those conservative activists, Bob Fu, the president of a Texas-based Christian group that seeks to pressure China over its religious restrictions, of trying to track Chen surreptitiously through a cellphone and a tablet computer that Fu’s organization donated to him.
The controversy kicked up by Chen’s accusations against NYU have dismayed some of his supporters so much that a wealthy donor who had pledged to finance a three-year visiting scholar position for him at Fordham University recently withdrew the offer. That means Chen, who declined to be interviewed for this article and who returned to New York from a visit to Taiwan on Thursday, has to line up another source of financing. If that does not pan out, he will be left with a single job offer from the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative research organization in New Jersey that is perhaps best known for its opposition to same-sex marriage and stem cell research.
The sniping has become a distraction from Chen’s work pressuring Beijing, but he is by no means the first Chinese activist to find his voice muted after arriving on US shores.
Since the late 1980s, a long list of high-profile Chinese exiles who were granted refuge in the US have found their work diminished, or their reputations compromised. Some, like Chai Ling (柴玲), a student organizer during the Tiananmen protests who later embraced evangelical Christianity, alienated many of her supporters by repeatedly suing the creators of a documentary that she says defamed her. Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), who spent 18 years in Chinese prisons for his pro-democracy activism, was feted by Congress and human rights groups after his arrival in 1997, but later became far less prominent after feuding with other activists.