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Purity and Danger in Academia: The Strange Case of Chen Guangcheng at NYU

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After his James Bond-like escape from house arrest with a broken foot in the dark last spring, self-trained, blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng slipped to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Stealthy arrangements, including a deal brokered by Gary Locke, Hillary Clinton, and others, got him a passport -- hard to get in China -- and special arrangements through Jerome Cohen took him to asylum at NYU Law School.

Chen had prepared for his escape by feigning weakness and physical decline for months, fooling his captors into lightening their surveillance. He posted a video on YouTube appealing to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and describing his and his family's experience under house arrest.

Do you remember that Chen forced a conversation on the phone with a Congressional hearing, asking Hillary Clinton to help him? In this he was supported by Bob Fu, founder and president of ChinaAid, in part because of Chen's work on behalf of women who had been forced to endure late-term abortions.

And now Chen is being asked to leave NYU. The school claims, plausibly, that his sojourn there had always been intended to be a year-long stint. This had never been mentioned last year, though. And Chen claims that NYU, like all of American academia, is folding under Chinese pressure as it prepares to open a campus in Shanghai in the fall. This is also a worthy conversation.

All sides of this story are strange. Chen is a master of publicity and timing. NYU apparently manages his media appearances, and I can understand why this might be desirable. He calls attention to genuine and serious issues in China and, now, in the U.S. relationship with China and in American academia in general.

U.S. institutions of higher education have been wrestling with their relationship to China since they first began to open up in the late 1970s. I was first in China in 1982, when the case of Steven Mosher broke. Mosher, like Chen, was horrified by cases of late-term abortion. Like Chen, he wanted to call attention to it. So, as a doctoral student at Stanford he published his findings through media in Taiwan. He told the truth -- horrifying truths -- but did it in ways that lost face for China and for his teachers and institution. Secret hearings ensued, and Mosher was expelled from the program. Some claim Stanford was weakly protecting its "access" to China for future students. Others claim impermissible ethical violations on Mosher's part. (For many years anthropologists' movements were limited as a result.)

But this raised then, and reminds us now, that the dance is done by two parties if there is a dance. Sometimes we decide to cut off all possibility of involvement, as with Cuba and Iran. Sometimes we decide to "engage" so we can influence, as people claim with China.
I know many China scholars who self-censor, as Perry Link so rightly states. Link can no longer go to China, so he risks nothing new; he's already lost all "access." This is true of the "Xinjiang 13" who wrote scholarly and historic analyses of Xinjiang and for many years were barred from China. Many of them developed new research areas, learning new languages and expertise. In many cases their own universities said nothing.

How much freedom is there in academia, and what causes individuals and institutions to curtail it? Is it politeness? Is it weakness? Is it calculated deviousness as some are thrown to the wolves to protect others' "access"?

China and the U.S. are involved in a battle of "soft power" and hard economic and political power. China opens Confucius Institutes. The U.S. opens a counterpart -- "American Cultural Centers." In the past Radio Free Europe and Voice of America aimed to broadcast the good news of US freedom; now the methods differ. With China sending almost 200,000 students to the U.S. each year many universities assume that our "academic freedom" will in itself be persuasive.

This has often failed to be the case. Many students return to China with stronger nationalistic feelings and a sense that, for example in the context of Tibet, U.S. views are simply "China bashing."

So for Chen to call attention to the limits imposed by self-interest, by cagey bets about power and future consequences, by U.S. universities' ambitions to expand in China for whatever noble and base reasons -- this impure master of media is demonstrating a similarity in the U.S. and China that makes people squirm. In some ways Chen is not behaving like a judicious scholar. That's why he was a hero. But we wanted him to be polite and grateful here, and he is not interested in that mealy-mouthed safe path.

With his purity and his wiliness comes a kind of danger.

We do live in interesting times.