On the front page below the fold today, the New York Times has a piece on the plight of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who escaped his country last year. What’s befallen the man now?
Mr. Chen’s political savvy has not translated well in the complex and fiercely partisan terrain he has encountered in the United States. Even before he could recover from jet lag in May 2012, Mr. Chen was besieged by human rights activists, opponents of abortion and an array of politicians from both parties eager to harness the celebrity wattage of the man who stood up to the Chinese Communist Party.
His sponsors at New York University cautioned Mr. Chen to stay clear of a partisan minefield he did not understand. “I told Chen there was a presidential election coming up and he should spend a year studying the American political landscape before wading in,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor and close confidant.
That advice, friends say, never really sank in, and Mr. 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.
It seems what the Times is really concerned about is that Chen’s criticized NYU’s treatment of and is now working with activists who also happen to be politically conservative. He’s not actually “mired in [the] partisan U.S.,” as the headline frets — instead, he just now happens to be leaning toward one side rather than the other.
As they explain, Chen is currently “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.” In addition to the Witherspoon Institute (which, by the way, is a leading voice for religious freedom around the world, a rather more important issue with regard to China than same-sex marriage) and its insidious offer, the Times discusses Bob Fu, an exiled Chinese dissident himself who played a key role in Chen’s escape from China but has also made the mistake of associating with Evangelicals in America who want to support religious freedom in China; New Jersey Republican congressman Christopher Smith, who called an important hearing that helped secure Chen’s release from China; and Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for John Ashcroft who’s now providing public-relations work for Chen.
There are some vaguely partisan controversies here, of conservatives apparently trying to use Chen – the story about the tracking devices is bizarre but entirely unclear; obviously it would be unfair of Fu’s organization to cast Chen as an opponent of abortion when he only opposes forced abortions, but it’s only the Times’s assertion that Fu’s fundraising off of that, and Fu has clarified on a number of occasions Chen is not against voluntary abortion.
You’ll notice that the Times doesn’t mention liberal partisanship presenting a problem for Chen. But the problem here actually appears to be coming from the left, or not be much of a problem at all: There’s no evidence in the story that Chen’s engagement with conservatives has actually harmed his reputation in any way; the only problems he’s had are with liberal institutions trying to prevent him from engaging with Republicans and religious types — which actually has interfered with his work, if Fu and Smith are to be believed.
The Times suggests that the acrimony surrounding his departure from NYU — the objections and complaints Chen has raised about the place – has been instigated by conservatives and has harmed him, but they have a legitimate, principled point to make there about American educational institutions and China (see what NR’s editors had to say). And it’s just quite possible that Chen agrees with them, and that he doesn’t want to be involved in partisan fights, but happens to agree with conservatives on this, and wants to make himself known. The idea that he might side with conservatives on principle, of course, doesn’t sit well with NYU or the Times.
The Times’ other explanations of conservative manipulation, and the wages of “partisanship,” don’t really hold up: Representative Smith, for instance, had the temerity to “pressing him to testify at a Congressional hearing that would have explored whether the Obama administration had nearly bungled Mr. Chen’s bid to leave China for the United States,” which could well be a partisan exercise, but also kind of sounds like one worth holding, and to which Chen would be an important contributor. NYU, meanwhile, was the real driver of “partisanship” here, pressuring Chen to decline to cooperate (he did turn Smith down, though the hearing was never held). Corallo, the former Ashcroft spokesman, has “waved off accusations that his role in helping Mr. Chen risked tainting the rights advocate’s nonpartisan bona fides” — whether it has or it hasn’t, Chen is the one who hired Corallo, and the Times is the one basically leveling the accusation here.