NEW YORK – Activist Chen Guangcheng charged that China waged an “unrelenting” pressure campaign that led New York University to end his studies as he voiced fear for academic freedom in the United States.
The blind self-taught lawyer, one of the most emblematic Chinese human rights campaigners, spoke out after adamant denials from the private New York university, which said it never planned to enroll Chen for more than one year.
Chen, whose dramatic escape from house arrest for the safety of the U.S. Embassy triggered a brief crisis between the two nations, said New York University discussed his departure soon after he arrived in May 2012.
“As early as last 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,” said Chen, who confirmed he would leave this month.
“The work of the Chinese communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back,” he said in a statement.
“Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime,” he said.
Chen, who has been outspoken on Beijing’s human rights record since his arrival in the United States, vowed to “do everything I can” on behalf of fellow Chinese “who still are not free and who are now being oppressed.”
“China’s communist rulers hope 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,” he said.
Chen, who has been blind since childhood, angered authorities in eastern Shandong province by exposing abuses in the one-child-only policy even though he has no legal education. He was sentenced to four years in prison and later put under house arrest, where he said he and his wife were beaten for speaking out.
New York University professor Jerome Cohen, a leading authority on Chinese law and human rights, arranged for Chen to study law at the school, which arranged accommodation for the activist and his family.
Cohen last week denied Chinese pressure on the university and said NYU would allow Chen to stay until he found another opportunity, with two possibilities on the horizon. He said of the criticism, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“No political refugee, even Albert Einstein, has received better treatment by an American academic institution than that received by Chen from NYU,” he said in a statement released by the university.
Cohen was responding to an article Thursday in the New York Post that alleged that NYU was parting ways to Chen so it can move ahead with a Shanghai campus, expanding into the lucrative Chinese market.
Cohen said he had “never heard a word from anyone,” including Chinese diplomats, linking the Shanghai project to Chen’s presence at NYU.
University spokesman John Beckman questioned why the school would accept Chen in the first place if it worried about China’s reaction.
Beckman did not immediately reply to an email Sunday seeking further comment after Chen’s remarks.
Chen said he was “very grateful” to New York University and Cohen but questioned why he never received a requested meeting with the university president, John Sexton, who has prioritized overseas expansion.
Chen faces little danger of being sent back to China as leading lawmakers from both major U.S. political parties have strongly supported him.