Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's upcoming departure from NYU has created a lot of debate over the Chinese government's influence in America's higher education, and with good reason.
But there's another factor in the news that Chen is leaving NYU — what will he be doing next, and how will that affect his reputation?
While some supporters are eager to see him as a human rights activist, others seem to be hoping he will can become a pro-life conservative figure. Whatever decision he makes next will undoubtedly affect his legacy.
This friction comes from Chen's incredible backstory — before he came to America, he was a self-taught and blind activist lawyer from rural China who represented women that had endured forced abortions. After 19-months of a frequently brutal house arrest, he escaped and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
However, as incredible as that story is, it takes on a different context within America.
Chen has been expected to take a position of visiting scholar at Fordham University's human rights wing, the Leitner Center, when his NYU position ends. Fordham and Chen have been in talk since at least the beginning of May, though the parties are still in "negotiations," according to a university spokesperson. However, Chen does have another option — the Witherspoon Institute in New Jersey. The conservative, pro-life, religious think tank in New Jersey offered Chen a three year work placement, the Financial Times reported at the start of June. The institute did not respond to Business Insider's request for comments at the time of writing, and it is unclear how talks over the deal have progressed.
In some ways Chen and the Witherspoon Institute make sense. Chen was a vocal opponent of both China's one child policy and forced abortions, which led some American conservative writers — including Michael Brenden Dougherty, Business Insider's former politics editor — to call him "pro-life." His most vocal supporter in the U.S. for a long time was Bob Fu, the Texas-based founder and president of the US-based human rights group China Aid. Fu is a Chinese Christian who escaped to the United States and has close links to the Republican party, the BBC reports.
It's also possible that the institute's offer is simply more attractive to Chen. For one thing, it is three years long, whereas the offer from Fordham is understood to be shorter. Other universities have failed to offer him positions, even when privately funded, and his recent comments may also suggest he is distrustful of American higher education as a whole.
However, many of his supporters — which include several well-known Democrats — balk at the idea of Chen going to the institute, which drew public attention and academic scrutiny last year for a study that criticized LGBT parenting. The institute is also opposed to gay marriage and pornography.
Some believe that Chen is being taken advantage of.
"If you appear to be siding with right extremists, it will hurt your image," Professor Jean-Philippe Beja, a senior researcher at the French Centre on Contemporary China, told the South China Morning Post. "The problem with exile is that you are isolated, and when you're isolated, it's easy to be taken advantage of."
To the Financial Times, an unnamed source said something similar: “It’s not entirely clear he understands all the riptides of those interests. How do you get your head around the strange world you’ve landed in?”
Is Chen himself actually pro-life (in an American sense of the phrase)? Business Insider was unable to find any comments attributed to Chen that clearly marked him as against abortion in all or most circumstances, and NYU China law expert Jerome Cohen told the Financial Times he was opposed forced abortions but believed in a woman’s right to choose. Chen himself is not a Christian, and Fu has said he is not " necessarily against " anything other than forced abortion, according to David Gibson of the Religious News Service.
It's a worrying situation for the man who is probably the most prominent Chinese rights activist of the moment. A source close to Chen told Business Insider that leaving NYU and the uncertainty over his future has taken it's toll. More than anything, the source told us, Chen wants to focus on bringing American attention to human rights abuses — including forced abortions — in China. Whether he can continue to do that without alienating a portion of the American public is unclear.
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