In May 2012, Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident, was getting ready to journey to New York after his improbable escape from house arrest. About a week before his arrival, an Evangelical Christian pastor from Texas and a New York University law professor took a walk in Central Park. They wanted to discuss the difficulties Chen might face as one of the most high-profile and sought-after immigrants to come to the United States in some time.
These men were to become two of Chen’s closest advisers in America, which would create a difficulty of its own. Over the course of an increasingly distrustful year, Chen couldn’t possibly follow their often sharply conflicting advice simultaneously, leaving him torn. But for now, as the pair strolled through the park on a Sunday afternoon, it seemed as if they were in alliance and set to counsel Chen in unison.
Jerome Cohen, the renowned professor and expert in Chinese law, thought it best if Chen initially spoke with caution, if at all, about his best-known cause: his exposure of the grisly practice of forced abortions and sterilizations in his native Shandong Province as an illegal means of enforcing China’s family-planning policy. Chen’s efforts enraged local officials and led to nearly seven years of imprisonment and house arrest.
His ordeal ended only when, one April night last year, Chen, who is blind, leapt the walls around his home, evaded the guards who had taken over his village, made his way to Beijing and sought refuge in the American Embassy.
Few in the U.S. could disagree with Chen’s cause. But Cohen felt it was tricky for a newcomer to discuss it with an American audience without getting enmeshed in the distinct and far more divisive debate here about when pregnant women can legally choose to have an abortion. Religious conservatives are among Chen’s most admiring supporters, and Cohen feared that Chen, who is not himself a Christian, might stumble on American political fault lines he’d not yet learned to detect. Besides, Chen had plenty else to talk about, having helped disabled people and the rural poor affirm their rights in China’s courts – so-called rule of law issues.
Walking alongside Cohen was Bob Fu, the founder of a Christian organization called ChinaAid, based in Midland, Texas, that agitates for religious freedom in his native China. Before his own exile, Fu, a 45-year-old with fuzzily buzz-cut black hair, had once been imprisoned for two months for proselytizing and for preaching in churches not sanctioned by the Chinese government. Sixteen years had passed since Fu and his wife, Heidi Cai, pregnant without the requisite government permit, fled China for political asylum in the United States.
Fu found little to object to as he listened to the professor – the pair had been friendly acquaintances for years – although he says he didn’t quite get why the abortion issue was such a big deal. Fu is not involved in efforts to limit access to abortion in the United States, and says he has never paid much attention to the debate.
“I maybe was a little naive,” Fu says. “I was not very conscious of how strong the battle with the pro-life group is, the almost irreconcilable differences.”
Cohen, a tall, imposing, gravel-voiced 83-year-old with a white mustache and a preference for bowties, is revered among scholars of Chinese law, not least because he taught so many of them over the decades. Fu says he was happy to defer to the professor’s wisdom. They both wanted to help Chen avoid the fate of the many previous Chinese activists and dissidents who struggled to continue their work after arriving in America before fading into embittered irrelevance.
Both men had been involved in helping Chen extricate himself from his awkwardly timed refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he had arrived just as Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, was getting into town for bilateral talks only to find herself defusing a diplomatic crisis. Fu had long been in contact with activists who helped Chen flee to Beijing, and became a sort of liaison among them, Chen himself, and various American officials and politicians.
Cohen, for his part, helped craft the diplomatically elegant solution of offering Chen a place as visiting fellow at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, where he is a director, at NYU’s law school, rather than have Chen seek political asylum. (The University of Washington and Oklahoma Wesleyan University made similar offers.) Chen, whose legal knowledge is largely self-taught, was keen to study. The arrangement also gave the United States and China the face-saving pretense of acting as if Chen was basically indistinguishable from the many thousands of Chinese who travel each year to America on student visas.
Cohen had first met Chen in 2003, when Chen spent several weeks in the United States on a State Department fellowship for foreigners of potential influence, and later called on him several times in China. “He could be China’s Gandhi,” Cohen liked to say. Fu hadn’t yet met Chen but had been involved in his case for years, helping circulate a video and a letter smuggled from the Chens’ guarded home in which they described their brutal confinement.
However, a little over a year after their stroll, Chen would make a stark choice between these two friends. In June of this year, Chen issued an incendiary statement. He asked Fu to proofread it beforehand; Cohen would see it, and with dismay, only after it was published.
Within a year, Chen Guangcheng would make an incendiary accusation: NYU was ousting him to please China.
In that statement, Chen accused the university of asking him to leave as a result of “great, unrelenting pressure” from “the Chinese Communists” – while thanking the school all the same for its generosity.
NYU, which is building an outpost in Shanghai, strenuously rejected the claim. In its defense, it can point to interviews Cohen gave PBS and Reuters weeks before Chen’s arrival in which he said the dissident’s position would last up to a year. A number of Chen’s supporters and colleagues from his year at NYU wonder whether he has made some sort of mistake. (For this reason, many of them would only speak on condition of anonymity, saying they wished the upsetting story would just go away.)
Chen, in an email, declined to be interviewed or to address questions for this account of his tumultuous year at NYU.
“To transplant the contradictions between dictators and the free world into the free world (for example, between NYU and myself) is something that the dictators are always working hard to do,” he wrote in the email. “We must not be fooled! Moreover, I don’t want to allow those people who have helped me to be harmed.”
It was never going to be straightforward for a so-called barefoot lawyer from rural China to find his feet on Manhattan asphalt. Chen thought he’d just be studying law. He ended up also getting a crash course in America’s culture wars. It was a predicament that would define his first year in the United States, where he found himself depending on the guidance of people who made no secret of the fact they did not entirely trust one another and were unable to cooperate.
Chen speaks little English, and so relies on others to translate his words. He was blinded by a childhood fever, and so relies on others to lead him around unfamiliar spaces. He had never lived outside China, and so depended on others to describe the ways of his new home. But America can seem a very different place when viewed from Midland, Texas, than it does from New York. Much of his time here can be seen as a battle, gradually ceded by those at NYU, over who could be considered the most careful custodian of his voice and his surest guide.
Pastor Bob Fu didn’t get why NYU’s Jerome Cohen wanted Chen to avoid the issue of forced abortion. “I maybe was a little naive.”
At first, that role belonged to Cohen. Besides avoiding abortion talk, Cohen told Fu that day in the park that he also thought Chen should steer clear of politicians, at least in public, until the 2012 presidential election had passed. He worried that Chen’s voice might be easier to dismiss if it came with a religious or partisan echo.
“Maybe he wanted to build a united front with me,” Fu says of Cohen, “and maybe he already put me in the column of pro-life, religious, evangelical, right-wing – you know, I don’t know this mentality.”
If there ever was an alliance between Fu and Cohen, it dissolved within days of Chen arriving in New York.
From almost the moment the plane carrying Chen, his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their two young children landed at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 19, Chen’s new colleagues at NYU and some of his closest supporters rarely viewed an encounter with him in quite the same way.
The cracks began to appear at Chen's first New York press conference, which took place that evening outside an NYU apartment building in Greenwich Village right after he emerged from a van to cheers and camera flashes. Chen, with his square jaw, easy smile, his wispy moustache and dark sunglasses, has the sort of dissident glamour that cameras find irresistible. That his right foot was in a cast and he hobbled towards the microphones on crutches, the lingering marks of his astonishing flight to freedom, seemed only to add to this appeal.
Chen addressed the journalists and supporters in Mandarin, thanking the American government for its help and the Chinese government for its “restraint and calm.” He added that he hoped China would honor what he said was a promise to investigate the treatment of him and his family. “So we should link our arms,” he said at one point, “to continue in the fight for the goodness in the world and to fight against injustice.”
To his left was Cohen, who clasped Chen’s elbow and occasionally whispered guidance in his ear or patted urgently at his arm when he spoke for too long without pausing for the interpreter. To Chen’s right was CJ Huang, a Chinese-speaking doctoral student at Yale’s history department, recruited the previous night to help the Chens with their transition. She took to scribbling words on a scrap of paper as she tried nervously to keep up with translating Chen’s remarks.
In the crowd was Reggie Littlejohn, an American activist who runs an organization called Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, which campaigns against forced abortions in China. She had testified several times over the years at congressional hearings about Chen’s plight. It was an emotional moment for her.
“I would have crawled half way around the world to see him while he was under house arrest,” she said, and now he was an arm’s length away. She had brought along a bouquet of roses – red, an auspicious color in China – to give Chen after he spoke.
“I would have crawled half way around the world to see him.” Rights activist Reggie Littlejohn
Instead, she recalls, someone from the NYU team interposed themselves, taking her flowers on Chen’s behalf. Littlejohn sent Reuters a photograph of the failed Kodak moment. It shows Chen twisting around to face Littlejohn and her bouquet as he is led away by the arms between Cohen and Matt Dorf, who had met Chen that day as his newly appointed public-relations consultant. Dorf’s firm has often worked for Hillary Clinton and other Democrat clients.
“I was close enough to touch Chen, but he was forcibly escorted from the press conference,” Littlejohn wrote in the accompanying email.
Dorf says it was a hectic first day, full of unfamiliar faces, with more or less everyone meeting for the first time, and that Chen was exhausted.
Chen went upstairs to join his family in the three-bedroom apartment provided rent-free by NYU. It churned with people. Flowers, toys for the children and gifts from well-wishers piled up.
Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey who had agitated for Chen’s release for years, was also there. Smith was irritated that his attempt earlier to give Chen a hero’s greeting on the tarmac of Newark airport had been stymied when State Department officials whisked the Chens from the plane into the van. But after a bit of a wait, he was more or less Chen’s first visitor, and they talked and posed for photographs.
Cohen and others at NYU say they respect Smith’s support and efforts on behalf of Chen and others who run afoul of authoritarian regimes, work Smith has done since the 1980s. But, as Smith is aware, they tend to disagree strongly with some of his politics. A Roman Catholic, Smith is passionately opposed to abortion and is a co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.
Still, on this evening at least, everyone mingled amicably. Bob Fu was away on a short trip in Asia. But his wife, Cai, came by, bringing Fu’s regards and gifts - a new iPhone and iPad for Chen.
Littlejohn almost made it upstairs, too. Soon after the press conference finished, she says she got word that Chen wanted to meet her. Before she got to the elevator, someone from the NYU team told her Chen was feeling unwell. They’d have to reschedule.
Even if it did not go entirely as they’d hoped, Littlejohn and Smith both describe it as one of the happiest days of their lives, a vindication of years seeking Chen’s release.
But as the year unfolded, Smith, Littlejohn and Fu, to varying degrees, grew convinced NYU was trying to control Chen’s movements. Even Huang’s frantic note-taking, a practice used by several of Chen’s interpreters, would come to be seen as part of a pattern of suspicious behavior.
Bob Fu ended his Asia trip and went to New York City the next Thursday, eager to finally meet Chen in person. Jerry Cohen had set up an appointment at Chen’s apartment for 8:30 a.m. Chen welcomed Fu at the door, and the two embraced and began talking earnestly. Both hailed from Shandong Province – their wives grew up in neighboring villages – and could swap dour tales of first-hand experience with Chinese justice.
A little later in the morning, Cohen, media strategist Dorf and Linda Mills, an NYU vice provost, arrived to join the Chens and Huang, his aide and interpreter, around the dining table for a pre-arranged meeting about communications strategy. Fu asked if he could stay and join in.
“I naively agreed,” Cohen says.
Much of the meeting focused on the importance of securing Chen a book deal. It seemed a perfect, obvious idea - with a memoir, Chen could describe his life’s work and provide for his family.
Fu’s circle grew convinced NYU – even its interpreters – was trying to control Chen’s movements.
Dorf and others discussed with Chen how the value of his story, particularly the parts about his imprisonment and dramatic escape, could corrode if every detail was aired in interviews and public appearances. Save all that for the book, was their advice.
Chen seemed to take this on board. Bob Barnett, a well-connected lawyer based in Washington who has worked as a book agent for Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, was one of three agents who had already been approached to represent Chen.
There was strong appetite for Chen’s remarkable tale: The day Chen arrived, an agent from William Morris Endeavor, the talent agency in Beverly Hills, California, had emailed Fu in hope of securing of Chen’s film and television rights for a “major client.”
The incoming messages Chen paid most attention to, however, were those with worrying news from his relatives: They were being harassed by local officials after Chen’s escape. A nephew, Chen Kegui, had been arrested for brandishing a kitchen knife at men who stormed his home at night after Chen’s flight, wounding one of them; other relatives and his lawyers complained they were barred from seeing Kegui. Cohen urged Chen to raise these concerns in media interviews. The meeting seemed productive.
Afterwards, Fu headed downstairs, and reporters waiting outside approached him. Fu recalls speaking to them for a short while, telling them Chen was well, if a little jetlagged, and would be appearing at the weekend alongside Cohen to speak at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The next day, Fu and Cohen had arranged to have lunch together, but when Fu got to Cohen’s office the professor was angry. “He was almost screaming,” Fu says. Cohen told Fu that people at NYU had seen his quote and would no longer trust him or work with him. Fu says he was surprised but apologetic.
Cohen told Reuters he was upset with Fu for leaving the previous day’s meeting early to “put his own spin on things,” giving “an interview that made it seem like he had allowed our NYU group to meet with Chen rather than the contrary.” Fu says he didn’t leave early and disputes Cohen’s interpretation of his remarks.
Cohen was also “put off” by an email Fu sent supporters of ChinaAid, Fu’s Christian advocacy group, seeking donations to a legal fund. “I think the money was supposed to defray the expenses of lawyers for Chen in China, which I thought rather odd,” Cohen says.
Chen is not a Christian, as Fu has sometimes pointed out in interviews and articles. But readers of Fu’s fundraising email might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“As Christians, we can stand with our Chinese Christian brothers and sisters as we pray for all those in pursuit of the truth,” the email said. “Help ChinaAid as we help support the work of the persecuted Chinese faithful.”
To Cohen, it seemed like just the sort of cynical misappropriation of Chen’s image he was trying to prevent. Fu feels he has been clear enough on the question elsewhere, and if the email, which Fu says was written by a ChinaAid staff member, caused Chen to be briefly mistaken for a Christian, of all things, it was unintentional.
“I think that might be our standard sign-off on every email we send, so maybe our staff just pasted it,” Fu says. An organization such as ChinaAid has every right to raise funds, he says, and in the end it sent some of its own money to lawyers helping Chen’s relatives in China. He says he also gave Chen about $2,000 from ChinaAid in the first week to defray the costs of his family’s transition.
Fu was falling out of favor with other members of Chen’s new team, too, over matters small and large. One aide found Fu’s habit that first week of frequently turning up at Chen’s apartment to drop off fruit tiresome and vaguely suspect, as if fresh produce might make it harder to turn him away when he swung by without an appointment. Fu considers this perfectly reasonable behavior, especially while Chen was still convalescing. “I know he likes to eat fruits,” he says. “Some cherries, some watermelon.”
What Fu apparently did not know was that Cohen and others at NYU had already come to believe that the iPad and iPhone given to Chen by Fu and his wife were loaded with spyware, in what they concluded was a deliberate attempt to monitor the Chens.
At some point, someone on Chen’s team asked NYU technicians to inspect the devices, according to Cohen and another person familiar with the episode. The technicians believed they had found spyware on the devices, and similar bugs on smartphones given to the Chens by Chai Ling, a post-Tiananmen Square émigré who has become a born-again Christian in the U.S. and runs an organization against forced abortions in China. They also thought spyware had been implanted on a third set of devices that some unknown person added to the pile of Chen’s well-wishers’ gifts, Cohen and the other person say. (A spokesman for Chai said she had no comment.)
Cohen had come to believe that the iPad and iPhone given to Chen were loaded with spyware.
Fu’s Apple devices were determined to have secret software on them allowing a third party to access both the devices’ files and their GPS systems, effectively turning them into tracking tools. Another NYU aide has a hazier memory, unable to recall whether the presence of deliberately installed spyware was established or whether technicians were instead trying to warn the team of potential vulnerabilities.
Fu says he was not even aware of the allegations until Reuters contacted him in June this year for comment. He says he then immediately reported them to someone he knows at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. People at NYU say Fu was never confronted because it did not seem a priority during a frantic first week. Fu maintains his innocence, saying all he did with the new devices was get a ChinaAid technician to install Skype and set up iCloud, a standard bit of Apple software that allows a user to remotely access a device’s files and – with a feature called Find My iPhone – track its location using its GPS system. “Heidi handed over all the passwords,” Fu says of his wife.
The details of this episode remain murky. Reuters was unable to establish whether Cohen’s allegation is correct, or whether Fu was simply trying to help get the devices up and running. Requests to speak to the technicians were denied by NYU, and the FBI declined to comment.
Fu and Cohen had their lunch that day. They managed some small talk about how Chen’s refrigerator was already amusingly stuffed with dumplings, but the relationship between the two men never really uncurdled after this.
“I became more cautious and decided that it would be better for Chen to have his own dealings with Bob rather than seek to coordinate with Bob any advice I might give,” Cohen says.
Cohen and others at NYU say they immediately told Chen about the spyware and their belief that Fu was behind it. Chen was furious at the news, one former colleague says. If so, Fu says, Chen kept it to himself.
Chen hadn’t been in America a week, and already he was forced to worry about the motives of those who purported to be helping him and to decide whom to trust: Fu? His new colleagues at NYU? Neither? Both?
Chen was asked what he wanted to do with the gadgets, and his response seems telling: He wanted them back once the technicians were satisfied. From then onwards, he would carry two phones at all times: his NYU-issued BlackBerry and the iPhone from Fu. Few, if any, of his NYU colleagues had the iPhone number, if only because they never saw a need to ask. Fu often called it several times a week.
A few days later, Chen’s first Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times. Cohen says he helped Chen write it. The piece, “How China Flouts Its Laws,” called on China to observe the “rule of law” and to investigate the harassment of Chen and his relatives. It did not mention forced abortions, even in passing.
Although the early days had been bumpy, everything still seemed to be going pretty much as Cohen had hoped during the walk with Fu in Central Park.
Chen Guangcheng spent nearly seven years of detention in China’s Shandong Province, in both a prison cell and under house arrest in his family’s stone farmhouse in the village of Dongshigu. For most of that time, the only people who were able to visit were the men hired by local government officials to guard him. Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, have described how those men sometimes came in and beat them: Once, a gang of them rolled up Yuan in a rug and pinned Chen to a chair in preparation for their pummelings.
Now that Chen was in New York City, a seven-year build-up of politicians, journalists, academics, lawyers, agents, human-rights professionals, activists, admirers and at least one Hollywood movie star all at once were eager to see him. It was sometimes overwhelming.
People who did not have Chen’s direct contact details – few did, in the early days – were obliged to approach him through Jerome Cohen, the venerable New York University law professor who had found a place at the school for Chen as a visiting scholar, or through Chen’s other NYU colleagues and newly hired aides. The academics tried to protect Chen from people they suspected were trying to harness his dissident charisma for their own ends.
If that route didn’t work, there was an alternative in Bob Fu, the Christian pastor and activist who runs an organization called ChinaAid, which agitates for religious freedom in his native China.
Fu had been prominently featured in recent media reports as a source of information about Chen after his escape from house arrest. He was fast becoming a close friend of Chen, and, about as quickly, an irritant to Cohen and others at NYU, who found him suspect. Fu was easy to get hold of at his office in Midland, Texas, and was generally less quick to point out potential reasons to turn down a request than the NYU people. Fu says he was disheartened to realize he’d fallen from NYU’s favor, but continued to dutifully forward all requests from people trying to contact Chen to staff at NYU.
Those whose request was denied or went unanswered sometimes became suspicious, believing Chen would surely want to accept but concluding that NYU must have intervened against his wishes.
“Everyone he agreed to see got to see him, not necessarily at the precise moment they demanded and not necessarily privately unless they especially requested such a meeting and he agreed,” Cohen says.
Sometimes Chen was slow, aides say, partly a factor of his blindness making him unable, for example, to speed-read through emails, which he would instead get others to read to him or listen to using slightly cumbersome English-text-to-Chinese-speech software. Other times he was unpredictable. One aide recalls him being keen to accept an interview request from a minor Israeli newspaper for reasons no one else understood.
The meetings that did take place could be prickly affairs, with certain visitors and Chen’s NYU-appointed aides eyeing each other warily across the room, occasionally to the point of confrontation.
Some of the strongest criticisms against Chen’s NYU colleagues came from Fu and two of Chen’s most ardent supporters: the human-rights activist Reggie Littlejohn and Republican Congressman Chris Smith.
“I felt Chen was being watched.” Bob Fu
“I felt Chen was being watched,” Fu says. He recalls bringing a Chinese human-rights lawyer to Chen’s apartment for a meeting one evening, during which CJ Huang, who lived in the same apartment building while working virtually around the clock as Chen’s aide and interpreter, arrived carrying her laptop, complaining that her Internet was down.
After Huang was let in, the clacking of her keyboard took on an ominous cast to Fu, and he decided the Internet outage was a ruse to allow her to document the conversation. Fu’s guest, the human-rights lawyer, seemed to feel the same way, and began pointedly photographing Huang, successfully creating such a fug of awkwardness in the apartment that Huang got up and left, Fu says. (One of Chen’s former NYU colleagues thought it more likely Huang was doing work for her doctorate in Chinese history, which she had to squeeze in around her Chen schedule.)
Both Littlejohn, who runs an organization called Women’s Rights Without Frontiers that campaigns against forced abortions in China, and Smith, the Republican congressman who worked to secure Chen’s freedom, had similar complaints.
Smith, who has been working with people who’ve fallen afoul of authoritarian regimes since the 1980s, says that in his numerous meetings with Chen, there was always somebody taking notes. “I don't know who they are or who they are reporting to,” he says. Smith says the only time he was able to meet without a Chen aide present was in January this year, when he insisted that Danica Mills, Chen’s main adviser since the previous autumn, wait outside while the congressman met Chen in his office. Mills, banished to the corridor, soon began ringing Chen’s phone repeatedly, Smith says. After some time, she opened the door, entered, retrieved Chen, and left, Smith says, in what he recalls as an unmatched breach of protocol in several decades of having an office on Capitol Hill. Mills declined to discuss the incident.
The concerns described by Fu, Smith and Littlejohn aren’t universal. Other people, including activists, lawyers, and other supporters, told Reuters they did not encounter any problems when meeting with Chen.
And Chen’s former NYU colleagues and aides, several of whom were hired from outside of NYU, bristle at the suggestion they could be rented by NYU to hoodwink a man they admire. They were present because Chen wanted them there, they say.
Fu was able to email Chen, they say, or to call Chen on the iPhone Fu had given him as a gift, or to meet privately with Chen whenever he liked – Fu does not dispute this - without anyone knowing what the two men discussed.
For example, no one interfered when Fu arranged for Viet Dinh, a Republican lawyer and a former assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, to meet Chen in an NYU conference room. Dinh’s Washington-based firm Bancroft, known for representing Republican interests in Supreme Court hearings over the Affordable Care Act and the Defense of Marriage Act, wanted to offer Chen pro-bono legal advice after being approached by a ChinaAid board member. Fu says Chen wanted to get a second opinion on his book deal, which was being handled by Bob Barnett, another prominent Washington lawyer. Dinh declined to discuss what he did for Chen, aside from one service: A year later, Dinh’s firm would help Chen circulate his dramatic statement attacking NYU.
Chen’s aides say that if they took notes in meetings, it was so they could interpret accurately. And these aides say they were not mere interpreters, but had a much broader supporting role. That included playing “bad cop,” one aide says, in which Chen would ask them to intercept a badly timed phone call or unwanted visitor at his building and tell whomever it was that Chen was tired or spending time with his children – which sometimes really was the case.
What Chen made of this discord isn’t clear, although he doesn’t seem to question the trustworthiness of Mills, the aide Smith made wait in a corridor. After leaving NYU this summer, Chen privately hired Mills, who has worked as an artist and filmmaker in both China and the U.S., to stay on as his assistant.
Still, one aspect of Smith’s claims is not entirely disputed by Chen’s NYU associates. They say Chen was the boss of his own schedule. But a caveat applied to certain invitations - particularly some originating from Washington. In considering these, Chen first had to listen to loudly voiced opinions from Cohen and other colleagues that it was wiser to defer accepting.
By July 2012, Cohen’s hope that Chen might steer clear of the capital until after the election was put to the test.
Smith and other lawmakers wanted Chen to testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2012. Cohen and others at NYU tried to convince Chen this was a bad idea, at least for now.
“Whether the requests came from Chris Smith, Bob or various other groups, my view was that Chen should take some months to learn about American life and should not allow himself to be injected into the presidential election campaign, whether in favor of or critical of either political party,” Cohen says. “When I told Smith's staff man that I thought Chen should wait till January, he said: ‘That will be too late.’ I said: ‘Too late for what?’”
Dennis Halpin, a staffer who worked for the committee’s Republican chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, says he was “under the gun” to get Chen. He had helped book hearings for a dozen years, but the difficulties in getting Chen to appear stand out in his mind. On one occasion, he got Chen on the phone and, in halting Mandarin, invited him down. Chen, who had also received a written invitation from Smith, said yes.
After a trip to the Hamptons, Chen sat sweat-soaked and distraught on a couch, his head cast back, racked by anxiety.
But otherwise Halpin was dealing with Cohen or other NYU intermediaries. They told him they were concerned that a committee appearance might cause problems with Chen’s book negotiations, and might do more harm than good for his relatives back in China.
About a week before the hearing, as Halpin was drawing up the final agenda, he found himself unable to get anyone on the phone. He learned that Cohen and Chen had gone with their families to the Hamptons. There, he was told, they were often preoccupied with beach strolls, and in any case the mobile phone reception was bad.
Defeated, Halpin gave up. The hearing would take place without Chen.
The Chens had been looking forward to the Hamptons trip, hosted by a rich admirer at a beachside estate, his former NYU colleagues say. (No one would disclose the host’s identity.) Chen’s children were especially excited - they had never been on a beach before. But by some accounts, it was not nearly as relaxing as had been hoped.
Chen thought it would be graceless to not accept the invitation to testify from Smith, who had played a role in his exit from China. He felt he had given his word to Halpin that he’d appear, and was upset at the idea of reneging. Chen also did not like being told by Cohen and others at NYU that his expectations were unrealistic or that his understanding of American politics was still lacking, say people who worked with him at NYU. These arguments increased in frequency and intensity over the summer, before spilling over out on Long Island’s wealthy eastern tip.
“That was a very big rupturing point,” says an aide to Chen who joined the family on the trip. “It was just incredibly emotionally wrought.”
Fu, on the other hand, virtually never made Chen feel naive or misguided. Quite the opposite – he could be critical of NYU, believing people there sometimes condescended to Chen. Fu says he and Chen have never once had a disagreement.
Asked about the trip, Cohen says he was “puzzled” to hear it described as stressful. “My wife and I had a very good time and enjoyed the discussions about how to handle matters in the fall, although I would not say the discussion was especially passionate,” he wrote in an email. “I think the Chens also had fun. My son Ethan even tried to teach Chen how to hit a tennis ball guided by the sound of the bounce.”
Fu, who also had been complaining that he couldn’t reach Chen while he was away, spoke with Chen’s wife after they returned to Manhattan. According to Fu, Yuan was nearly in tears as she described how her husband was sitting at home sweat-soaked and distraught on the couch, head cast back to the heavens, racked by anxiety.
Later, Fu tried to ask Chen about the trip. Chen was reluctant to say much, Fu recalls, but described being harangued by some people who visited the estate. The visitors told Chen he would be making a huge mistake to travel to Washington, warning that if he did, he would be used by Republican politicians. Chen replied with a rhetorical question, according to Fu: So if I don’t go, will I get used by Democrats?
About a week later, on August 1, with the help of NYU colleagues, a determined Chen went to Washington.
There was a little noticeable tussling between Republicans and Democrats over who would see Chen when, but the trip to Capitol Hill was successful. A bipartisan photo-op was organized for Chen with John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats. Chen gave a short speech to lawmakers and journalists. With no sign of an investigation into his family’s treatment forthcoming, Chen toughened his tone toward the Chinese government.
“So if a case as high-profile as mine cannot be properly handled in accordance with Chinese law, and with international legal norms, how are we able to believe that China will respect human rights and the rule of law?” he said.
Soon after his return to New York, an aide organized a meeting with Chen to discuss in greater detail what he might do once he left NYU the next summer. Fu says this was punishment for insisting on going to D.C. and fraternizing with Republicans. Chen saw it as evidence that NYU was succumbing to pressure from China to end its ties with him. People at NYU say they were only trying to give Chen as much time and help to sort out his next steps as they could.
The book deal that Cohen and others at NYU helped arrange was finally completed and announced, and Chen signed what his publisher – Times Books, a division of Macmillan – said was a standard agreement not to disclose the memoir’s exclusive contents before publication. Chen’s publisher and agent declined to discuss Chen’s advance. Several people who worked with Chen say it was around $500,000. (Fu released his own memoir last month, titled “God’s Double Agent.”)
Chen was growing increasingly independent. Cohen and others at NYU say they often didn’t know who Chen was speaking to or where he was going. They didn’t really object, they say, although they would wonder why he sometimes seemed so secretive.
By this point, his NYU colleagues and some of his closest supporters were clearly divided. His way of dealing with the breach, it seems, was to tip-toe around it.
As August had drawn near, Chen’s colleagues had been asking him if he wanted help sorting out a family vacation. Chen eventually declined their offer, saying he’d made his own arrangements. An aide set about cancelling classes and appointments.
“They mysteriously announced they would be away for a week's New Jersey holiday and plainly did not want to tell our NYU group who their host was,” Cohen says. “We were glad they returned looking tanned, fit and happy. They subsequently made various commitments without asking or telling us.” They speculated, wrongly, that the mystery host was Congressman Smith, whose district includes part of the Jersey Shore.
They were correct to infer from Chen’s quietness, however, that Chen’s host was someone in the other camp.
Chen “asked me a question: ‘So why do people in New York so hate the Christians or the religious people, why are they so panicked?’” Bob Fu
In fact, the Chens had joined Bob Fu’s wife, Heidi Cai, and Fu and Cai’s daughter for the vacation. (Fu stayed home to look after the couple’s other two children.) The trip was hosted by a friend of Fu’s from Philadelphia at a Jersey Shore beach house – “an ordinary Christian businessman,” Fu says, declining to elaborate, saying the host did not want publicity.
Only a few weeks prior, Fu was complaining that Chen had “disappeared” with the Cohens to the Hamptons. Now the roles were reversing.
According to Fu, Chen increasingly confided in him the concerns he felt he could not share with people at NYU.
“He asked me a question,” Fu says: “‘So why do people in New York so hate the Christians or the religious people, why are they so panicked?’ So he had heard enough, so you can tell it backfired.”
“He could just not believe their propaganda anymore,” Fu says.
Cohen says this is a cartoonish picture. If this is indeed how Chen felt, Cohen and his colleagues say, then Chen misunderstood their advice, which was to simply to be cautious about being seen to align closely with any one faction.
Still, Chen’s NYU colleagues weren’t oblivious to the tensions. They looked to Chen’s background to explain this.
Chen was used to taking the path of most resistance. He came from a poor family of farmers. He had refused to let himself be funneled into becoming a massage therapist, one of the few professions that, in much of China, are thought to be within the ken of blind people. He had instead taught himself law and used that knowledge to defend a widening circle of beleaguered neighbors, often in defiance of the government’s most authoritarian representatives. Seven years of often harsh detention had not dulled his spirit.
Now Chen, a lifelong sole trader, was ensconced in one of America’s largest universities. Aides wondered if a part of him had come to see NYU as the authority figure against which his instinct was to rebel.
Chen’s main source of anguish, Fu says, was his uncertainty about what he could and couldn’t say about forced abortions back home – “the most central issue in his life,” Fu says.
“You didn’t see him mention this word ‘forced abortion’ in any of his public speeches,” Fu says. “I can see Jerry Cohen was very successful in those terms: ‘Just talk about the rule-of-law issues’.”
Fu recalls a conversation with Chen from the early months. “He told me, ‘Last night, I learnt in my hometown there’s another woman with eight months pregnancy, they forcefully aborted the baby,’” Fu said, “and he didn’t sleep all night and he was just agonized and painful, but then he told me, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’”
On August 30, Chen made his first substantial public comments on the issue in the United States, in an open letter to Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple. The letter urged Apple to use its clout in China, where many of the company’s phones and computers are manufactured, to do more to criticize the country’s family-planning policies. (Apple didn’t respond to the appeal, telling reporters that the issues were addressed in its annual corporate-responsibility reports.) The letter was co-signed by Fu, Littlejohn and Andrew Duncan, a human-rights advocate who was to play an increasingly close role behind the scenes as one of Chen’s supporters.
As 2013 rolled around, Chen seemed to have patched up an equilibrium with his fractured circle of supporters. In February, he joined Cohen at the New School in New York to give a talk on human rights in China. In April, Fu helped arrange a trip to the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, to meet the former president and record an interview with the center’s director about his activism.
That month, Chen returned to belatedly testify at a hearing of Smith’s subcommittee and meet lawmakers in D.C., where he began sharing the concerns that would lead to the year’s unraveling.
“His delightful children were sometimes in the office. Inevitably, there were frictions.” Jerome Cohen
At the subcommittee hearing chaired by Smith on human rights in China, Chen began by holding up a piece of paper. It listed the names of “corrupt officials” he said had “blood on their hands” because of their alleged involvement in 130,000 forced abortions in Shandong Province. He asked that they be barred from entering the United States under a 2000 law written by Smith.
During that same trip, Chen and Fu also visited Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, in her office. Pelosi had long supported Chen’s cause, and they had met several times after he arrived in the U.S.
Chen told her the allegation against NYU that, a couple months later, he would make public. Pelosi seemed concerned, and someone got Cohen on the phone for her.
“I assured her as briefly and clearly as I could that there was nothing to the story that Chen was being ousted because of Chinese pressure, and I guaranteed her that the Chens would not be cast into the street and told her we were working on better opportunities for his next step,” Cohen says. (A Pelosi spokesman declined to make her available for an interview.)
Chen has not said whether he has any evidence for his claim.
There is some indication that Chinese officials were sore over Chen’s embarrassing arrival at the American embassy. But whether this consisted of pro-forma and ultimately ineffectual complaints from Chinese emissaries, or was something fiercer that forced NYU to change course, seems stuck in the realm of speculation.
“Feelings were hurt on the Chinese side, no question about it,” says John Kamm, who has known both Cohen and Fu for years and is the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks to free Chinese political prisoners. “They were embarrassed, they certainly let me know they were very unhappy.” Still, he says, he does not think China threatened to “pull the plug” on the Shanghai campus.
Two government officials involved in the talks and an official at the U.S. embassy in Beijing say they saw no evidence of Chinese pressure. About five months after Chen arrived at NYU, China’s education ministry gave its final approval for the Shanghai campus.
In any case, Cohen suggests, any effort from China would have been redundant. Aside from funding, there were more commonplace reasons for not extending Chen’s time at NYU, Cohen says: The dissident was getting on his colleagues’ nerves.
“For example, our burgeoning U.S.-Asia Law Institute has a severe shortage of space,” Cohen said in an email. “Nevertheless, we gave him one of our very few offices, making it necessary for two of our permanent research scholars to work in open cubicles, a big inconvenience and status deprivation. Chen-related activities tied up our conference room many times a week and involved our U.S.-Asia Law Institute scholars in interpretation, scheduling and other matters. His delightful children were sometimes in the office. Inevitably, there were frictions, and the group got the impression that he was not very appreciative of their efforts.”
Cohen’s own office is in a separate part of NYU, away from the institute, and he says it took time for news to trickle down the corridors to him.
“The group's desire to see him leave at the end of the academic year had nothing to do with politics,” Cohen said, “but was a matter of personalities, misunderstandings and his frequent secretiveness about certain visitors and activities.”
NYU had been telling Chen since at least the autumn of 2012 that he would need to find a new place to work by the end of the academic year. After Chen’s April trip to Washington, Fu recalls, the matter took on urgency.
“Sabotage! How could (Cohen) just preemptively destroy the only available job offer by doing a public interview?” Bob Fu
Cohen had already managed to arrange a tentative place – “really a wonderful position,” he says – for Chen at the Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers. Cohen is an adviser to the committee, housed at Fordham University’s law school in Manhattan, a few miles uptown from NYU. There, Chen would join a small team of legal scholars who monitor and ease the harassment of human-rights lawyers in China. Virtually everyone, including Fu and Smith, said it seemed a good fit.
Andrew Duncan, one of the co-signers of Chen’s open letter to the CEO of Apple, agreed in principle to fund Chen’s position, according to Fu and two other people familiar with the negotiations. Duncan did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Duncan, a former private-equity executive now working as a rights advocate, had become a generous supporter of the Chens after meeting them in New York, Cohen and Fu say. He briefly emerged into view in an interview with Bloomberg News to discuss the Apple letter, but otherwise preferred to remain behind the scenes, Fu says. Duncan became a rare figure in Chen’s close circle who seemed to make a point of getting along equally with both Cohen and Fu.
As negotiations with Fordham continued, Fu, Duncan, Smith and other supporters worked to rustle up offers from other institutions. Smith had the most luck. The congressman spoke with a contact on the board of the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative research center in Princeton, New Jersey, across the street from Princeton University. Witherspoon is best known for producing research that opposes same-sex marriage, abortion and stem-cell research.
In May, Smith phoned Luis Tellez, Witherspoon’s founder and president.
“To tell you the truth, at that point I didn't even know who Chen was,” Tellez says, “but I heard from my donors that this is an important person and I quickly concluded that he probably was.”
Hiring the dissident would be a new direction for Witherspoon, which had given little scrutiny to human rights breaches in China. Tellez has long been the coordinator of the Princeton University activities of Opus Dei, a conservative organization within the Catholic Church which teaches that ordinary people can be saintly in their daily lives. Witherspoon is not officially a Catholic or Opus Dei institution, although it is influenced by Catholic ethics, Tellez says. Tellez also helped found the National Organization for Marriage, now one of the largest lobbying groups opposed to same-sex marriage.
This was not the sort of cause Chen had ever been involved in. Still, Tellez saw they had common ground in their shared abhorrence of forcing abortion upon a resisting expectant mother.
“I wanted Chen to make a statement because if he keeps quiet it will look like there’s some truth to that New York Post story.” Jerome Cohen
With Fu helping as a bilingual go-between, Tellez invited Chen to lunch at Princeton University's faculty club. “If you trust us, we are here to help,” Tellez recalls saying at the lunch. Chen had some “misgivings” – in particular, he was keen to be affiliated with a university. Tellez said he and his colleagues would see if they could help with that.
In June, news of Chen’s discussions with Fordham and Witherspoon appeared in the Financial Times, which reported that the dissident was being courted by institutions with “opposing views”. Cohen was quoted as saying: “If he takes the Witherspoon position that would diminish his stature in the US.”
Fu saw Cohen’s quote. In a mirroring of events a year earlier, when Cohen accused Fu of being meddlesome in the press, it was Fu’s turn to be angry.
“Sabotage!” he thought. “How could you just preemptively destroy the only available job offer by doing a public interview, without even talking to Chen?”
Cohen says he thought that Chen “would do better in a more neutral, academic setting, especially one that focused on the plight of Chinese lawyers. But, of course, the purported Witherspoon offer had some attractive benefits, and I felt that Chen was mature and informed enough by late spring to make his own choice.”
Tellez, who hadn’t heard back from Chen, read the story and recalls thinking Fordham’s offer was a good one. He assumed that’s where Chen would end up.
On Thursday, June 13, the New York Post published an article with the headline: “NYU booting blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng amid Shanghai expansion.” It quoted an unnamed “New York-based professor familiar with Chen’s situation.”
The story quickly spread, but journalists from New York to Beijing were unable to reach Chen.
Cohen, then traveling in China, had been emailing Chen urging him to focus on finding a new apartment before his lease at NYU expired. Then he heard the reports, and sent another message.
“I wanted Chen to make a statement because if he keeps quiet it will look like there’s some truth to that New York Post story,” Cohen says, “but what he never told me until it was too late was that he turned the statement over to people in Washington who turned it into something with, shall we say, a Republican spin.”
“In fact, as early as last August and September, the Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University.” Chen Guangcheng
Chen’s statement, released three days after the Post story, said it was true that NYU had asked him to leave by the end of June.
“In fact, as early as last August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University,” the statement went on, “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.”
He nonetheless thanked NYU and Cohen, and finished by saying China’s plan was “to make me so busy trying to earn a living that I don’t have time for human rights advocacy, but this is not going to happen.”
Fu says Chen wrote every word of it, with Fu’s only role being to proofread it and get it translated into English. Viet Dinh, the Republican lawyer who had offered Bancroft’s legal services the previous summer, says he received Chen’s statement and passed it on to Mark Corallo, his public relations consultant and a friend since they worked together in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, who circulated it to the press.
Dinh disagrees with Cohen’s suggestion that Chen’s statement was spun. “Unless you think human rights and freedom and free speech is solely a Republican cause or Republican issue, which I do not think it is, I think these types of namby-pamby conspiracies are senseless,” he says.
Within hours of the statement, the old tensions flashed across newspapers, websites and television channels. Fu, Smith and Littlejohn told journalists about the weirdness they’d encountered in their dealings with Chen. The people who worked with Chen at NYU talked about how they were left hurt and mystified by Chen’s claim, and told the same journalists all the reasons it couldn’t be true. China’s foreign ministry declared itself bemused at the allegation, with a spokeswoman saying she didn’t know whether Chen was wrong or just making stuff up.
“If I thought there was any attempt to muzzle me or muzzle him, I assure you I would have announced it in the Post,” Cohen said in a brief phone interview with Reuters from China shortly after Chen’s statement. He also briefly chastised Chen, saying he risked being seen as “biting the hand that feeds him,” and wondered if he might have made it harder for the next political refugee from China to find a host in the U.S.
But before ending the call, Cohen took a more magnanimous tone. “We are old friends,” he said. “I have no regrets about this. Obviously, life would have been more simple, and fewer people would have been maligning me otherwise, but that is not much of a price to pay at this stage in my life.”
A couple of days later, Duncan, the donor behind the Fordham offer, sent around an email saying he’d reached a difficult decision: He would withdraw the funding.
A week or so afterwards, Chen and Cohen were reunited on a long-planned joint trip to Taiwan, where a former student of Cohen’s has become the president. China’s foreign ministry had warned Chen to behave in an appropriate manner while visiting the disputed territory. That didn’t stop Chen from praising the island’s democracy. Cohen had some old advice for Chen updated for a new setting, urging him to avoid being seen as too closely associated with either Taiwan’s right-leaning Kuomintang party or its left-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.
The trip required Chen to face journalists for the first time since his NYU broadside. He bristled at their questions about NYU, saying now was not the time to discuss the matter. Cohen, who joined Chen at a press conference, agreed: It would look bad to squabble in front of China.
Chen returned to Manhattan to continue apartment hunting. It took time, and the school extended his stay a little longer, but, at the end of July, more than 14 months after Cohen said on PBS that Chen would come for “up to a year,” Chen and his family left NYU.
Meanwhile, up at the Witherspoon Institute, Tellez wondered what was going on. Chen still hadn’t replied to the job offer, and Tellez contacted Fu several times to try to get an answer either way. In late summer, Tellez sweetened the deal, telling Chen that the Catholic University of America, the national university of the Catholic Church in Washington, seemed willing to discuss a joint affiliation.
By early September, with attempts to revive the Fordham offer going nowhere, Chen made his decision. He would become a senior fellow in human rights at Witherspoon and a visiting fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He would also become an advisor for the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, a more liberal-leaning organization named after the late Tom Lantos, a Democrat Congressman from California, which had awarded Chen its annual human rights prize earlier this year.
As Chen would explain, he hoped the mix of affiliations would neutralize the idea that anyone could pin him to any particular point on the American political spectrum.
The day the news was announced, Fu told Reuters he felt “vindicated.” “When those leftist ideologues, ideology-driven people who pick me as a target and tried to paint me as partisan, right-wing, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Obama,” he said, “I think it’s just baseless, groundless, when we have the three institutions like this come together in supporting Mr Chen, and I'm part of that process.”
Cohen, reached by phone that day, was more muted.
“I'm very happy that all of this is resolved,” he said. “I want to make it clear I'm happy for him, and wish for the best, and we'll continue to be friends.”
The next day, Chen joined his new colleagues at a news conference in Washington. To his left sat a professional interpreter, who scribbled notes as she parsed English into Mandarin and vice versa, apparently to nobody’s concern. Yuan Weijing, Chen’s wife, sat smiling warmly in the front row, and pulled out an iPhone to photograph and video her husband. A few seats down was Bob Fu.
John Garvey, the president of National Catholic University, praised Chen’s advocacy as aligned with Christ’s message “that the poor and the vulnerable are especially worthy of our kindness and mercy.”
Chen rose to speak.
“Today I’m at a new starting point,” the dissident said. He now referred to China, which a little over a year before he had hoped would end and investigate his relatives’ harassment, as an “evil power.” Before ending his remarks, he said he wanted to express sincere gratitude to NYU.
When asked by a reporter what he thought of the notion that he had been courted by conservatives in the United States, Chen replied that it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him.
“I'm happy for (Chen), and wish for the best, and we'll continue to be friends.” Jerome Cohen
“I believe human rights supersede partisan politics, and it’s greater than national borders,” he said.
Chen is taking up his new posts just as the cause that made him famous returns to the news. In a surprise announcement last week, China’s government said it will make the most significant change to its family-planning policy in decades, allowing millions more urban couples to have a second child. What difference this might make in the countryside, where most couples have been allowed to have two children since the 1980s and where Chen did most of his work exposing forced abortions and sterilizations, remains unclear.
Cohen, meanwhile, is working on his own memoir. He says he will probably devote a chapter to Chen Guangcheng.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Max Duncan in Beijing, Clare Jim in Taipei, and Paul Eckert in Washington, D.C. Edited by Michael Williams. Photo editing by Jim Bourg. Designed and illustrated by Troy Dunkley. Developed by Charlie Szymanski.)
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