Lost in America

How America's favorite Chinese dissident burned bridges at NYU and ended up at a pro-life, anti-gay think tank.

Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish

Nearly two years after arriving in the United States, Washington, D.C.’s favorite dissident Chen Guangcheng remains certain that the Chinese Communist Party is out to get him. "There are so many people in the United States, it can’t only be me" who feels the pressure from the party, Chen said, in his first major interview since June 2013. That month, he accused New York University, where he was serving as a visiting scholar, of bowing to pressure from Beijing; his departure from the university was acrimonious, and he has mostly shied away from media since then. But he still wants to make his point. "Why isn’t anyone saying anything?" he said. "Is the Communist Party really that scary?"

A self-taught legal activist who fought to protect the poor from government abuses, Chen catapulted to international fame in April 2012 when he fled extralegal house arrest in central China and sought asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Just days before a Beijing visit by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his thrilling, Shawshank Redemption-like escape (Chen, who is blind, broke his foot while scaling the wall surrounding his house under the cover of darkness, and fell at least 200 times as he stumbled to meet an activist who drove him to safety) made him an international star and sparked a diplomatic firestorm between the United States and China. As part of a face-saving arrangement Clinton negotiated to allow him to leave the U.S. Embassy, New York University (NYU) offered Chen a one-year legal position as a visiting scholar; he flew there with his family days later.

Chen, who’s writing a book about his escape, hasn’t spoken much about what happened. But something clearly rankles. In response to a question about Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke’s role in the situation, he said that if people thought carefully about what happened back then "they would possibly feel that they were again cheated by the Communist Party." It is not uncommon, he said, "to see that the Chinese government lies to their people, but now they’re lying to the United States and even the world." But truth is a fragile thing.

I first met Chen in October 2012, in his calm and empty NYU office, off a quiet city block, five months after he left China. He was calm, his voice confident, his posture straight. He had a tendency to interrupt my questions, propelled forward by the strength of his convictions. But it was clear the ordeal was not behind him. "It’s hard for someone who’s not been in prison to understand," he said. "It’s not too easy to recover from persecution. It’s not like you go hungry for three days and then you satiate yourself and suddenly everything is back to normal." And yet, Chen seemed poised for iconic status as a critic of the Chinese state. As Jerome Cohen, a NYU University law professor who acted as a Chen confidant, described him, Chen was "calm, highly intelligent, with an underlying determination and steeliness. He seemed a potential Gandhi figure for Chinese society."

But in June 2013, Chen announced he was being forced to leave NYU. As early as August and September of 2012, Chen wrote in a statement, the Chinese Communists had started applying "great unrelenting pressure" to the university. This move baffled many of his supporters. "I think he may have misunderstood things," said Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute who has worked on Chinese human rights issues, and who calls herself a huge admirer of Chen. Chen said he made the statement because "I feel I have the responsibility to let the American understand that the dictators are exerting great influence on the free world. If you are not aware of it, it will be dangerous." (In an emailed statement, NYU spokesman John Beckman said, "it remains a regrettable puzzle to us why he claimed that the winding down of his fellowship was a result of pressure from the Chinese government. It wasn’t true.")

Both Beckman and Cohen make a point of stressing just how much money the school spent on Chen. In his statement, Beckman wrote "we provided costly and enormous support to him and his family," while Cohen said that while has never seen Chen produce any evidence to support his claim that NYU bowed to Chinese pressure, he has seen "evidence of strong NYU financial support for Chen’s new housing after his fellowship ended." As Cohen told Foreign Policy in June 2013, "You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. NYU has been extraordinarily generous to the Chens."

Chen still declines to explain how exactly NYU bowed to Chinese pressure. Instead, he coyly notes, "I know the Communist Party desires to divert the conflicts between dictatorship and democracy to the conflicts within the democratic society itself."

In the months since Chen left NYU, his appearance has changed little — his hair is slightly greyer, his suit better-fitting — but his image in the United States has grown far more complicated. Cohen, who had acted as a mentor, had a falling out with Chen. In an email, Cohen said the two remain good friends, "despite our disagreement about whether his one-year NYU fellowship was not renewed because of supposed PRC influence."

Chen agreed that the two were still friends. "But there’s this phrase: I love my teacher but I love truth more," he said. "That is my principle."

Principle aside, some China watchers feel that a bit more guidance and interaction from the State Department would have helped Chen after he moved to the United States. A State Department official, speaking on background, said that since Chen arrived, officials met with him on several occasions, but that Clinton did not meet or appear publicly in America with Chen during her tenure as secretary. When asked why, Chen replied with a smile, "language barrier." He didn’t seem to remember the State Department meetings. The Chen negotiation had been a diplomatic success for Clinton, but it paled in comparison to the importance of the U.S.-China relationship as a whole. "The State Department was forced to deal with Chen’s situation; they did not want to deal with it, so they tried to turn it into a public relations victory," Currie said. But as soon as Chen found a home at NYU, "their headache [was] over, and they [felt] like they [could] move on. And now, they are nowhere to be found."

In October 2013, Chen announced he would be accepting a three-year fellowship at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative, pro-life think tank. The move drew criticism for Chen’s perceived inability to navigate his life in America. "After Epic Escape from China, Exile is Mired in Partisan U.S.," read a New York Times headline. The story quoted prominent Chinese activist Hu Jia, who has been in touch with Chen over Skype, saying "I think that maybe he got in over his head."

Others feel that Chen erred in aligning himself with figures like the far-right firebrand Bob Fu, a pastor and president of China Aid, a nonprofit Christian human rights organization. Like Cohen, Fu had advised Chen during the tense weeks following his escape. In an interview in mid-December 2013, Fu rejected any claim that he had swayed Chen. "That’s totally false information," he said. "He’s his own man!"

* * *

On Dec. 5, Chen attended a House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing in Washington, called, "Their Daughters Appeal to Beijing:  ‘Let Our Fathers Go.’" Five young Chinese women, the daughters of imprisoned Chinese dissidents, sat on a panel facing the assembled congressmen. "As a source of some hope, immediately behind you sits Chen," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who had long championed Chen’s cause. "He made a Herculean journey to the U.S. Embassy, and by the grace of God he is a free man." Chen sat behind the daughters, directly in the center of the room, occasionally nodding his head at the conversation. "I pray that someday you’ll be united with" your fathers, Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), said to the girls, slowly, with a giant smile.

Fu sat on the next panel, and spoke of the loss of "God-given, self-evident, fundamental ideals" in the United States that was hurting the campaign for human rights in China. He asked the congressmen if they wanted to stand with the "Nazi" state church of the Communist Party, which would betray God and leave a mark of shame. Two of the congressmen left abruptly, after roughly the fifth time Fu said "Nazi." 

At dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Washington that evening, Chen spoke about his perceived affiliation with reactionary Christianity. "I don’t believe in any religion," he said firmly, in between bites of kebab, and sips of tea. His wife, Yuan Weijing, who joined him for dinner — along with Chen’s brother, who sat alone at a nearby table and looked pleased just to be in the United States — added: "He only believes in truth and facts."

Chen pointed out that, beyond his ties to the Witherspoon Institute, he’s also affiliated with the Catholic University of America, and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. Anyone who pays attention to human rights in China, who supports Chinese constitutional democracy, he said, is a friend. "Who’s right-wing or left-wing might be important to Americans," his wife said. "Chen really doesn’t care."

He told a horrific story about a pregnant woman who was almost buried alive for violating the one-child policy. "Is this about abortion or women’s rights?" he asked. That it’s barbaric and should be prevented is what matters, he implied, not whether or not it fits into a Democratic or Republican framework.

But it’s hard to argue that Chen hasn’t lost some of his early luster. He’s not alone, however: nearly all prominent Chinese human rights dissidents lose influence after they leave mainland China. Wei Jingsheng, arguably the first major dissident to leave China in the post-Mao era, was soon forgotten. Chai Ling, a major student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who later got a Harvard MBA, is now probably best known in the dissident community for lawsuits – she sued the makers of a film about the protests, and was sued in 2012 for allegedly forcing an employee of hers to pray on the job. Wu’er Kaixi, a student leader who fled China after the protests, hasn’t been able to return to the mainland. In November 2013, he tried to turn himself over to Beijing for the fourth time — and again was refused.

"As soon as dissidents leave China they lose their influence," Han Dongfang, a Chinese dissident who has spent the last two decades in Hong Kong, where he runs the labor rights organization China Labour Bulletin, said in April. "It’s like cutting off your legs and putting you in a wheelchair."

When asked if he feared his own obsolescence in America, Chen responded that, in this era of hyper-connectedness, "you can get things done wherever you are…. Promoting democracy is not to say everyone needs to stand in the front of the stage."

And yet, there’s a celebrity unique to the United States that the low-key Chen clearly enjoys. He praised Christian Bale, the Batman star who in December 2011 tried to visit Chen when he was under house arrest in China, but who was forcibly turned away by security personnel before the two could meet. I asked him if other people like Bale had tried to see him. "Yes," he said. "But I can say with certainty that Obama wasn’t one of them." Bale "dared to lose the Chinese market," Chen said. "That’s not something just anyone would do."

In October 2012, Chen finally met Bale in New York; soon after, the Batman star invited him to go to Disneyland with his family; they went in January 2013. "Bale really likes the roller coasters," Chen said. "I asked him if there was a more exciting ride than the one we went on together, and Bale said ‘No, this is it!’" (At that point, Chen, a man who had been rolled into a carpet and beaten by thugs, spontaneously broke into a giggle.)                 

Does he worry about the long arm of the Communist Party? Since he left China, Chen says he hasn’t had any contact with Chinese officials. "Maybe you need to help show them the way!" he said, laughing. "They say they can’t find me!"

Gloria Wang contributed reporting to this story.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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