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Amid reports that blind pro-life activist Chen Guangcheng is being asked to leave New York University, some human rights defenders are worried that the decision may have been influenced by the Chinese government.
“I have worked on other high-profile human rights cases just like this, and I’ve never known a case to bring such a high-profile, world-class human rights defender, and say ‘your time is up,’” Rep. Chris Smith (R- N.J.) told CNA, adding that the university’s actions bear “the hallmarks of pressure.”
While New York University officials say that the fellowship offered to Chen was always intended to be temporary, the pro-life activist said that the Chinese government exerted pressure on the university after he began speaking out on human rights abuses in his home country.
Blind since childhood, Chen became a self-taught human rights lawyer and drew the attention of Chinese officials for his work in opposing forced abortions and sterilizations under the government’s one-child policy.
Spending more than four years in prison for his activism, he and his family were placed under house arrest in September 2010 with no formal charges. He has said that he and his family members were treated harshly and denied medical treatment during this time.
Following his escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in April 2012, Chen gained international attention. Voicing concerns about the wellbeing of his family, he was offered the fellowship at New York University’s law school in May 2012.
At the time, the university did not name a specific date for the fellowship’s end.
In a May 4, 2012 interview with PBS Newshour, Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, stated that visiting scholars typically have a “quite flexible” arrangement, and that the Chen family would “come for up to a year,” and then be able to move back to China to further participate in “in the law reform movement.”
A New York Times article two weeks later reported that New York University had “granted him visiting scholar status for an indefinite period.”
On June 13, it was announced that Chen was being told to leave the university. According to the New York Post, “NYU told Chen that if he and his wife and kids don’t find a place by July 15, they will have go to a hotel.”
Chen said in a June 17 statement that “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 we had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us.”
Warning of threats to “independence and academic freedom in the United States,” the activist warned that the Chinese government intends “to use these means to disturb our normal life, and even want to make me so busy trying to earn a living that I don’t have time for human rights advocacy, but this is not going to happen.”
New York University spokesman John Beckman reacted to Chen’s claims, claiming in a June 17th statement that “Mr. Chen’s fellowship at NYU and its conclusion have had nothing to do with the Chinese government.”
“All fellowships come to an end,” he said, pointing to Prof. Cohen’s remarks that the position could last only one year.
However, Rep. Smith – who chairs a House subcommittee on global human rights – said that the university’s stance shifted after Chen attended an August 2012 meeting on Capitol Hill with Speaker of the House John Boehner, as well as other members of Congress and the media. Smith said that the university “told him not to come to the Capitol Hill meeting.”
“When he went back, they were very negative towards him,” Smith said. “Chen knew after August 1 that this was not going well.”
The lawmaker said that Chen was invited to speak before Congress at “another hearing on August 10, and on August 11, New York University notified Chen that it would only be a year-long position,” adding that the institution was “very upset” at the activist’s actions.
“He’s a world-class human rights defender who has something to say. Why would you want to gag that?” Smith asked.