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China's Blind Activist to Leave New York University

  • Natalie Liu

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng

The blind Chinese activist who arrived in the United States last year will be leaving New York University at the end of this month. News of Chen Guangcheng's departure from the university has caused a stir in the media, with some reports accusing NYU of having kicked the activist out in order to appease the Chinese government.

NYU has been home to Chen, his wife and two children since they arrived in the U.S. on May 19, 2012. The university has provided him with an office and a nearby apartment, according to a university spokesman and others familiar with Chen's circumstances.

The head of NYU's U.S.-Asia Law Institute, Jerome Cohen, helped arrange Mr. Chen's departure for the United States after he had spent six days in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Cohen issued a statement Thursday saying "no political refugee, even Albert Einstein, has received better treatment by an American academic institution than that received by Chen from NYU." Cohen added that Chen "now is in the process of choosing between two attractive opportunities."

Earlier, the Financial Times reported that Mr. Chen has been offered a three-year contract to work at the Witherspoon Institute, a pro-life research institute based in Princeton, New Jersey, while also in negotiations with another New York-based university on becoming a visiting scholar. On Thursday, Fordham University's senior director of communications, Bob Howe, said the school is in negotiations with Chen. But he would not comment further.

The New York Post, which first reported the story of Chen's imminent departure from NYU, describes him as "scrambling to find a new home." The newspaper notes that NYU is negotiating with China to open a branch campus in Shanghai and suggests that is behind the decision for the Chinese dissident's departure. NYU denied that in a statement released Thursday, saying Chen's status "has never come up" during the Shanghai campus negotiations.

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder professor of international relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania and a long-time observer of U.S.-China relations.

"NYU did the right thing in accepting him. The circumstances of his departure are not clear. Some people are saying that it is unrelated to NYU's goal of opening a campus in China," Waldron said.

Waldron, a known critic of a "soft" approach toward China, says he worries that the U.S. government and institutions are getting too cozy with a government that is not democratically elected and does not necessarily represent its citizens' rights or wishes.

"What we're seeing is that university after university, though not all universities, and think tanks and other organizations, too, are compromising their basic principles of human rights, freedom of speech, and so forth, in order to obtain something from this autocratic regime, for instance a campus in China, or access, yes," Waldron said.

Waldron says the Chinese have come to the conclusion that most Americans and most American institutions will sacrifice their principles for money.

Chen, who is 41, first gained international recognition as a defender of rural Chinese women who went through forced sterilizations or forced late-term abortions. He has continued to criticize the Chinese government since arriving in the U.S. He says Chinese authorities still harass his family.

In a conversation with NYU Law School staff, Chen expressed optimism about China's future: "It is not important whether the leaders [of China] change; the most important thing is whether citizens have the consciousness to recover their own rights. All in all, the awakening of the Chinese people is occurring at the speed of a thousand miles a day -- yi ri qian li ... the historical development is inevitable; I do not think any force can stop it."
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