In an unsigned editorial piece on Thursday, China’s state-owned Global Times blasted blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, over his accusation that the Chinese government bullied New York University in forcing his departure from that institution.
Chen joined NYU on a one-year fellowship after fleeing house arrest in China last spring and taking refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing immediately prior to the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in that city. The deal for Chen to “temporarily” leave China was worked out between U.S. and Chinese officials after days of tense negotiations. NYU agreed to offer Chen a one-year fellowship in its U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the urging of NYU law professor and friend-of-Chen’s, Jerome Cohen, as well as the State Department’s legal advisor a,t the time, Harold Koh. It has since paid for Chen and his immediate family’s stay in the U.S. and offered other accommodations like English lessons.
But last week it was reported that Chen would soon be leaving NYU after a little more than a year. Controversy was stirred when an anonymous NYU professor told the New York Post that the university had asked Chen to leave because of pressure from the Chinese government. The anonymous professor said the school’s administrators feared Chen’s presence at the university would undermine their efforts to open up an NYU branch in Shanghai.
NYU officials promptly denied the report, calling it “fanciful and false.” However, Chen released his own statement last weekend contradicting the word handed down by NYU officials.
"In fact, as early as last August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University, so much so that after we had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us," Chen’s statement said, Reuters reported.
An NYU spokesperson said the university was “saddened and puzzled” by Chen’s statement, claiming that it “contains a number of speculations about the role of the Chinese government in NYU's decision-making that are both false and contradicted by the well-established facts."
The Global Times editorial board took aim at Chen today in a message clearly intended to dissuade other Chinese from taking similar actions.
Some of the piece was simply aimed at degrading Chen himself. For instance, noting that Chen lacked the “academic qualifications and language competence” the paper claimed it was only due to “political relief” that he was awarded the fellowship in the first place. On the other hand, the Global Times argues that Chen’s blindness— “a special perk,” as GT sees it— is the only reason he has remained in the spotlight since coming to the U.S. last year.
Still, the intended audience of the piece is clearly future potential dissidents who might want to follow in Chen’s footsteps.
“His [Chen’s] embarrassing situation mirrors the fate of many Chinese ‘pro-democratic activists’ in the 1980s,” the editors write.
“Chen's understanding of both China and the U.S. stems from his own experiences and feelings, which gives him an incomplete image of Sino-U.S. relations. In fact, as one of the chess pieces used in the U.S.' China policy, he, like the others, is not given as much value as he expected.”
Pledging that “radicals” will not disrupt U.S.-China relations, the GT editorial board concludes in part by saying:
“They will feel depressed by the US' ‘irresolute attitude’ toward China, and feel ‘betrayed’ because the U.S. government ‘abandoned them halfway.’ It is the fantasy about their own value that ‘abandoned’ them. These dissidents who went overseas will realize that cooperation with China is what prevails.”
While a state-run Chinese media outlet might be expected to condemn Chen, criticism of the blind human rights activist has also come from unlikely sources as well. Notably, NYU law professor Jerome Cohen, who, as noted above, was crucial in bringing Chen to NYU in the first place, has also expressed disappointment with Chen’s actions.
In an interview he gave to Foreign Policy magazine this week on the situation, Cohen said, “You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you. NYU has been extraordinarily generous to the Chens, and I've been grateful for the support.”
He further warned that Chen had to learn that there are “consequences to free speech. You can say anything in America, but you have to learn that it can come back and bite you.”
Indeed, this is not the only recent incident in which Chen might be accused of “biting the hand” that feeds him. Last month Chen traveled to England to receive a human rights award from the UK parliament for his work in exposing forced abortions in China. When Chen learned that he would not be meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit, he told reporters that, “The British government will not meet with me because they are scared of upsetting the Chinese government.”