Last year, Chen Guangcheng arrived in New York to take a teaching position at New York University. He’d just escaped house arrest in his native country of China after being prosecuted for representing thousands of women in a class-action lawsuit against the Communist government. Now, more than a year later, the university has let the renowned dissident and self-made lawyer go, leading many to point fingers of blame at the school’s PR coup de grace: worldwide expansion.
The news of Guangcheng’s dismissal first came yesterday in the New York Post, with an “exclusive” report titled “NYU booting blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng amid Shanghai expansion: sources.” According to the piece, NYU let Guangcheng go amid pressure from the Chinese government, an entity the university needed to sign off on its “portal campus” in Shanghai. And it mentions that the dissident’s announcement to visit Taiwan soon was the nail in the coffin for Chinese-NYU relations.
Started in 2007, the Shanghai location is one of three portal campuses controlled by NYU (the other two are in Abu Dhabi and, of course, here in New York). Along with 12 other programs stretched far and wide across Europe, Africa, and South America, this web of academia represents the Global Network University (GNU), an international program at the center of controversy for no-confidence-voting professors, a situation detailed in full length by former Voice scribe Nick Pinto’s February cover story.
The anonymous sources in the Post story provide serious accusations to the consequences of the school’s policy. Except there’s not much substance to work with. To counteract, NYU spokesperson John Beckman argued in a statement to the Voice and other outlets that the lack of foundation in the Post‘s reporting is found in the timeline of events that took place here and abroad:
The story’s claims of ‘outside pressure’ are fanciful and false. If it were true, why would NYU have taken Mr. Chen in at the height of the public fervor, and why would the Chinese authorities have given us permissions to move forward with our Shanghai campus AFTER his arrival here?
NYU Shanghai has been in the works for some time now, creating a numerous amount of encounters between the Chinese government and the NYU administration since Guangcheng’s inception in March 2012. Did the Taiwanese visit announcement by the dissident really force the government to put pressure on NYU to release him even after months of deliberation?
Beckman’s statement continued:
The plain fact is that these are unrelated matters. In countless hours of conversations involving the establishment of our Shanghai campus, this matter has never come up.”We were pleased to offer Mr. Chen and his family a place to come and study and support his transition to the US when he first left China based on a pre-existing relationship he had with scholars here. But NYU and Mr. Chen had discussions beginning last fall that NYU could not support him indefinitely.
Jerome Cohen, an NYU law professor and expert in Asian studies, was one of the main forces behind Guangcheng’s diplomatic transfer from the U.S. Chinese embassy to NYU. He argued that he “never heard a word from anyone, including Chinese diplomats, about the Chinese Government putting pressure on NYU to terminate the Chens’ visit.” And, for him, the dissident’s dismissal was part of the plan.
“My understanding with the Chens was that NYU could guarantee him one year in order to get their feet on the ground and transition to a more permanent position,” Cohen said in a statement obtained by the Voice. “We could not see beyond one year at that point, but I have always made clear, and the University authorities agreed, that our US-Asia Law Institute would allow him to stay beyond one year until a better, more permanent, opportunity arose.”
According to the Post, Guangcheng is currently seeking a position at Fordham Law and those talks are “still ongoing.” Hopefully, the politics there are a little less hectic.