Commentary Magazine


The Blind Dissident and the American Left

Chinese dissident and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng got a taste of American partisan politics almost immediately after appealing to the U.S. for asylum last year. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a high-profile visit to Beijing. She was representing the administration of Barack Obama, who was locked in a general-election campaign against Mitt Romney, who was taking a more hawkish line on Chinese trade and currency shenanigans to try to exploit what he felt was a foreign-policy weakness of the president’s.

That meant that Clinton’s trip would be under the microscope and every word overanalyzed. On top of that, Clinton is mulling a presidential bid in 2016 and her Chinese counterparts were quite aware that they were dealing with Obama’s possible successor. The optics and the politics had to be just right for a whole host of domestic reasons, to say nothing of the pressure from the Chinese side, which was preparing for a leadership shuffle of its own. And that’s when Chen threw everybody’s plans off.

A public spat over human rights may have been the last thing Clinton and her Chinese counterparts needed at the moment, but the hearty attention being paid to her visit made it precisely the right time for Chen, known as the “blind dissident,” to make his move. Not only did his surprise visit to the American embassy add a layer of tension to Clinton’s visit, but he was also famous for warning of the dark side of China’s one-child policy and calling attention to the Chinese government’s forced abortions.

As soon as it became clear that Clinton’s attempts to get the Chinese government to let her grant Chen American asylum were off to a rough start, Romney criticized the administration’s handling of the issue and Republicans in Congress called a hearing to highlight Chen’s case. Romney was criticized for jumping into the case and the press used the incident to highlight division within Romney’s campaign. The congressional hearing, led by the staunchly pro-life Republican Chris Smith, featured a phone call to Chen directly. Chen was officially a partisan issue.

Smith’s hearing was derided by media voices as well, but it later emerged that the hearing is almost surely what secured Chen’s freedom after Clinton’s efforts went nowhere. Considering that back story, today’s New York Times feature claiming Chen’s first year in the U.S., at a brief fellowship with New York University, was beset by controversy and his work somewhat discredited by his association with conservative activists falls flat. The Times reports:

Chen, 41, has found himself enmeshed in controversy. Backed by a coterie of conservative figures, Mr. Chen has publicly accused N.Y.U. of bowing to Chinese government pressure and prematurely ending his fellowship this summer. The university says the fellowship was intended to be for only one year. Some of those around Mr. Chen also accuse the university of trying to shield him from conservative activists.

The sparring has grown fierce, with N.Y.U. officials accusing one of those conservative activists, Bob Fu, the president of a Texas-based Christian group that seeks to pressure China over its religious restrictions, of trying to track Mr. Chen surreptitiously through a cellphone and a tablet computer that Mr. Fu’s organization donated to him.

The controversy kicked up by Mr. Chen’s accusations against N.Y.U. has dismayed some of his supporters so much that a wealthy donor who had pledged to finance a three-year visiting scholar position for him at Fordham University recently withdrew the offer. That means Mr. Chen, who declined to be interviewed for this article and who returns to New York from a visit to Taiwan on Thursday, has to line up another source of financing. If that does not pan out, he will be left with a single job offer: from the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative research organization in New Jersey that is perhaps best known for its opposition to same-sex marriage and stem cell research.

With regard to the NYU controversy, it’s doubtful either side has a monopoly on the truth. The university seems to have wanted to have its cake and eat it too, by welcoming an international celebrity (and doing its part to help end a diplomatic standoff by offering Chen a fellowship) but hoping to keep the feisty dissident quiet enough not to antagonize the Chinese government, since NYU is opening a campus in Shanghai. There is also the matter of the three NYU researchers, all Chinese citizens, who have been charged with accepting bribes from Chinese entities to pass on the information about their work, which was sponsored by a U.S. federal grant from the NIH. Chen’s departure from NYU was unceremonious to say the least.

At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine NYU is guilty of some of the accusations leveled by Chen’s supporters, including that Chen was muzzled by an official NYU minder whose job it was to run interference for the school. There are few places more admiring of Chinese-style statism and authoritarianism than elite American universities, but that doesn’t mean they function as Stalinist reeducation camps or thought prisons.

But any intellectual romance Chen hoped to have with the American left or academia was doomed from the very start. The defense of unlimited, unregulated abortion is sacred to the American left. So is the idea that increasing the size and scope of government is the solution to virtually any problem, including those created by big government in the first place. The language the left deploys in these fights dehumanizes unborn children and deemphasizes individual rights and individual identity–“the government is us,” as President Obama said just this week. Chen has dedicated his life to warning of the consequences when those principles are taken to their frightful extremes. And he doesn’t seem to have any interest in stopping now.

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