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.
“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.
In those first few months, friends say, Chen took the advice of Cohen and others by turning down a number of appearances in Washington that could have suggested a partisan affiliation, including an event sponsored by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, named for former Democratic representative Tom Lantos, who died in 2008.
Smith, who did not respond to interview requests, has sought to portray the interference by NYU as more aggressive. In one instance last January, Smith told Reuters that his effort to meet alone with Chen in his Washington office was interrupted by a translator he presumes was employed by NYU and who barged in and led Chen away.
One of Chen’s supporters has been Mark Corallo, a Republican public relations consultant who was a spokesman for former US attorney general John Ashcroft. Corallo, who handled Chen’s public accusations against NYU, waved off accusations that his role in helping Chen risked tainting the rights advocate’s nonpartisan bona fides.
“This is a courageous man who has been the victim of oppression and, frankly, I think it’s incumbent upon every American to assist someone like him,” he said.
Mattie Bekink, an NYU consultant who spent several months as Chen’s translator and adviser, disputed the accusations that NYU was pressured into abandoning him. She also rejected the notion that the university sought to control him or limit his advocacy work.
“Mr Chen was freely able to communicate and associate with whomever he chose,” she said.
In recent weeks, as he traveled through Taiwan, Chen has parried questions from reporters who have asked him to elaborate on his accusations against NYU and whether he was worried the controversy might diminish his influence as an advocate for human rights in China. Fu, who said he continued to speak to him almost daily, said Chen was actively planning his next move after he vacates his NYU apartment in the coming weeks.
In an interview, Fu recounted a conversation the two had after Chen met a Witherspoon Institute founder, Robert George, a conservative Christian thinker.
Chen, he recalled, said he was unbothered by the group’s attacks on abortion and same-sex parenting. “He told me, ‘Don’t call them conservative. They are principled. And if they are willing to support the struggle for freedom, then that’s good enough for me.’”