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Scholars with Spine

by Jay Nordlinger

Notes from the field of China studies

Jerome A. Cohen may not be known to the public, but he is well known to Chinese democrats and their supporters. A law professor at New York University, and a veteran China scholar, he is the sponsor and, in a way, protector of Chen Guangcheng. Chen is the Chinese legal activist — “the blind peasant lawyer,” as he has been called — who made a run for the U.S. embassy in Beijing earlier this year. This was after six years of imprisonment, house arrest, and physical assaults. Cohen played a key role in the negotiations that led to Chen’s departure from the country. Chen is now at NYU, under Cohen’s supervision. Not many are the China scholars in the West who are willing to stick their neck out for Chinese dissidents, democrats, and other “troublemakers.”

Why is that? First, it is perfectly human, probably, to shrink from trouble. But we can be more specific in our reasons. Obviously, some number of scholars are simply sympathetic to the Chinese regime. But a greater number are wary of crossing that regime, because they need or wish to go to China, and must have visas. Also, there is a great deal of Chinese money in China studies — and biting the hand that feeds you is problematic. In sum, there are plenty of reasons to steer clear of controversy. Plenty of reasons to avoid Beijing’s bad side, and blacklist.

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