07/03/2013 04:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chen Guangcheng, Still Raising Heck

In 2012, Chen Guangcheng, an unlicensed activist Chinese lawyer, escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His case became a major international incident, and thanks in part to the efforts of New York University (NYU) Professor of Chinese Law Jerome Cohen, Chen and his family were able to find refuge in New York. Recently, however, Chen issued a statement implying that pressure from the Chinese government was forcing NYU to terminate his fellowship. In an interview, Cohen responded: "You shouldn't bite the hand that feeds you." A 2012 interview seems to confirm NYU's assertion that their support for Chen, including a Greenwich Village apartment, was always meant to last a year and recent revelations even suggest that NYU technicians protected Chen by identifying and removing special spyware from a smartphone and tablet he received as a gift from Chinaaid, a Christian human rights organization. It seems pretty clear that NYU had always intended to support Chen for one year, and I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt for reasons that have been eloquently expressed elsewhere. Additionally, it is hard to imagine in what role NYU could keep him on indefinitely.


Chen Guangcheng gives an interview shortly after his escape (photo: Kempton)

We should not forget that Chen is in this country because he is a rebel (indeed GQ named him Rebel of the Year 2012). We admire him as a man of tremendous courage and principle, an advocate for disabled and women's rights. In 2006, he was imprisoned on charges of "intentionally damaging property and gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic (故意毁坏财物罪以及聚众扰乱交通罪)." The charges came in retaliation for suing local officials in Shandong's Linyi prefecture on behalf of "thousands of local women who had been the victims of an aggressive family planning campaign that included forced sterilizations and abortions." But Chen's true offense was probably publicizing the case when higher-level Chinese courts ignored his appeal, including interviews with Time magazine and the Washington Post, and public protests by his supporters.

Chen's rebelliousness, which make him admirable when pitted against a repressive regime, seem to have made the simple end of a fellowship a significant PR liability for a, presumably, well-intended NYU. Additionally, I have shown elsewhere that many well-connected Chinese lawyers are able to win small victories against the state while staying out of trouble. These lawyers may ultimately prove more effective than Chen and a handful like him, partially because they are so much more numerous and partially because they can continue to work in China.

Chen's conviction drove him to tactics which even most activist lawyers eschew, especially in combination: 1) his case touched on a nationally sensitive issue (the one-child policy) 2) he included over a thousand plaintiffs and attempted to open the door for over a hundred thousand more 3) he lacked the government connections that help protect other activist lawyers 4) he liaised with foreign media 5) public protest was involved. Most lawyers would probably have avoided serious reprisals by giving up after losing in the lower court and having an appeal ignored. They likely would have chosen less aggressive tactics, for example, by bringing a much smaller group of plaintiffs (even one of China's lawyers most experienced at suing the state has never filed a case with over 700 plaintiffs). It is difficult to assess whether less aggressive tactics would ultimately have been more successful, but it is likely that they would have kept Chen out of trouble.


Chen and his special adviser meet with the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Photo: House Committee on Foreign Affairs / Speaker Boehner's office)

Chen is then, probably by personality, and certainly by circumstances, an uncompromising rebel. One can understand how he might feel abandoned by those who so recently welcomed him as a hero and why he would strike out at the perennial villains in his life story, the Chinese state, catching NYU in the crossfire. Apparently, Chen is currently considering offers from Fordham University Law School and the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Princeton, New Jersey. Wherever he ends up, China could probably use more rebels like Chen, but it could certainly use many more moderate figures who can advocate for change in China without causing quite so much trouble for an institution that only wanted to help.