Anti-Abortion Advocates May Be Behind the Blind Chinese Activist's War on NYU

Anti-Abortion Advocates May Be Behind the Blind Chinese Activist's War on NYU

The story of 41-year-old blind Chinese dissident and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, currently a visiting scholar at NYU, took an all-too-familiar turn on Monday afternoon: According to the The Wall Street Journal, Chen has fallen in deep with a group of strident religious conservatives who have, among other things, persuaded him to speak out against NYU for imaginary slights — including, as first reported by the New York Post last week, a secret agreement with "Chinese bureaucrats" to arrange Chen's early eviction from the university. The Journal's story closely parallels numerous reports that anti-abortion activists, often animated by religious conservatism, hope to leverage Chen's campaign against China's eugenics program, in particular forced abortion, to restrict access to elective abortion in the United States. The unnamed members of Chen's newfound influencers, meanwhile, "are keen for him to become a more outspoken critic of China's government," even if that means alienating the American university that currently pays for his office, apartment, and health care.

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This revelation surfaced one day after Chen issued a multi-part statement repeating the Post's allegations: "As early as August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University, so much so that after [my family] had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us." Hours later, NYU vehemently denied Chen's claims, stating that its initial agreement with Chen, who arrived in New York after escaping Chinese authorities in May 2012, explicitly stated that the school could only support him for one year, after which he would have to find his own housing and income.

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To be sure, Chen's charges are not completely removed from the realm of possibility. As Quartz's Jake Maxwell Watts noted on Sunday, NYU enjoys a particularly close relationship with the Chinese government, on account of its expansion in Shanghai and the steady flow of Chinese students paying full freight to study in New York. But according to NYU professor Jerome Cohen, a close friend of Chen's who helped negotiate the activist's appointment at NYU, none of Chen's claims really add up. Cohen told the Journal: "Mr. Chen seems to be taking advice from a group that thrives on accusation, rumor, suspicion, gossip and malice. So far not a single fact has been adduced to support their allegations."

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The thrust of Chen's accusations is, indeed, a bit unclear. In his full statement, he thanks NYU for hosting him at the height of his personal vulnerability — he had been holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after escaping his home, where he had been placed under house arrest following a five-year prison term for charges that were never substantiated — but criticized NYU President John Sexton for never bothering to meet Chen in person. And it's not as if Chen or his family (he has a wife and a son) is in danger of being instantly deported or rendered destitute. Shortly after arriving in New York last year, Chen signed a high-profile book deal, and is already in talks with several institutions in the tri-state area, including Fordham University in New York and the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank in New Jersey, to fund his studies and activism.

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Where Chen lands next is likely to attract its own controversy. Cohen, the NYU professor and friend, expressed concern in early June with the Witherspoon Institute's recruitment of Chen, citing the think tank's views toward abortion policy. (Unlike leaders at Witherspoon, Cohen told the Financial Times, Chen believes believes in both access to abortion and protecting women against forced abortions.) Meanwhile, Chen's other leading choice, Fordham University, has a 15-year relationship with the state-sponsored Peking University in Beijing, and is home to the Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, which exists "to promote the rule of law in China." Chen's recent attacks on NYU could narrow his choices, though: An acquaintance of Chen's told the Journal that Chen's insinuation that NYU cooperated with China to remove him from campus "might compromise offers from other schools and push him toward the Witherspoon Institute."