“You have to be a tough nut to be a dissident, but those same qualities don’t always serve them well outside China,” said Perry Link, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has helped many Chinese exiles adapt to life in the US.
Friends of Chen say that he has been eager to solicit others’ advice, but that he has often been swayed by the last person with whom he spoke. Although they describe him as fiercely principled, they say he may have overestimated his ability to navigate the partisan shoals of US domestic politics.
“Chen often told me he had no interest in siding with the Democratic or Republican Party, but that he was on the side of democracy and freedom,” said Hu Jia (胡佳), a Chinese dissident who frequently speaks with him on Skype. “I think that maybe he got in over his head.”
Even before he landed at Newark Liberty Airport last year, veteran human rights advocates predicted a tug-of-war over Chen and his superhero elan, both among elected officials and the tangle of Chinese exile groups that often vie for attention and scarce financing.
John Kamm, the director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that advocates for Chinese political prisoners, said at the time that the prospect of someone with Chen’s profile coming to the US was electrifying.
“In the dissident community, someone with his kind of stature doesn’t come along every day,” Kamm said shortly before Chen arrived. “His face, with those sunglasses, is the kind of Che Guevara-like image you can stick on a T-shirt.”
Among those most eager to stake a claim on Chen’s celebrity was Fu, whose organization, China Aid, played a high-profile role in publicizing his long persecution at the hands of the local officials in Shandong province, which included nearly six years of jail and house arrest.
Most dramatically, it was Fu, during a congressional hearing convened by Republican Representative Christopher Smith, who held aloft the cellphone that allowed Chen to plead for refuge in the US as he recovered in a Beijing hospital from the injuries sustained during his escape.
Critics say Fu overstated his own role in the audacious escape and then made use of Chen’s story in fund-raising appeals to his evangelical Christian supporters. Those appeals sometimes cast Chen as an opponent of abortion. Despite his opposition to forced sterilizations and abortions, Chen has said he has no position on the divisive issue.
In an interview, Fu, a former Chinese dissident who was granted asylum in the US in 1997, waved off suggestions that he manipulated Chen and turned him against his hosts at NYU.
“To accuse me of brainwashing him with religious extremism totally underestimates Chen’s intelligence,” he said. “To be honest, I think the NYU folks’ efforts to feed him information about how dangerous religious people are backfired and in the end he got fed up with them. He saw we were not monsters.”
Several people who worked closely with Chen over the past year described an awkward push-and-pull over Chen’s affections that often pitted his advisers at NYU against Fu and Smith. Shortly after Chen arrived, Smith began pressing him to testify at a congressional hearing that would have explored whether the Obama administration had nearly bungled Chen’s bid to leave China for the US. Chen eventually declined to participate in the hearing, which never took place.