Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
The Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, who arrived in New York Saturday after diplomatic manuvering allowed him to come as a visiting scholar, expressed concerns about four-fellow dissidents on Monday.
Chen has been unable to contact his nephew, said his friend and mentor NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen. “He’s concerned that lawyers have not been permitted to go down to the county seat where the nephew is being held by the police,” Cohen said. Lawyers from around the country have been prohibited from seeing him, “so the boy is left defenseless.”
He is also concerned about his oldest brother, and his wife, as well as the Chinese social scientist, Guo Yushan, all of whom helped with Chen’s dramatic escape from his hometown in Shandong, to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Cohen, the person responsible for inviting him to NYU, speaks with Chen regularly. He said Chen believes Guo is a prime target of the Chinese police now because of his role in sheltering Chen when he arrived in Beijing.
Chen’s arrival in New York City marked the end of a week-long diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and China. Chen fled his rural hometown for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He first asked to study law in China, which was granted, insisting that he study overseas.
Cohen told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Tuesday that Chen wanted to stay in China but changed his mind when his wife claimed she had been tortured.
“He panicked and thought, ‘I made a mistake. I want to leave the country.’” Cohen said.
Cohen praised the work of officials at the embassy, saying they worked “around the clock,” trying to come up with a solution that would allow Chen to stay in China. His departure to America was not the result “anyone contemplated in the beginning,” he said.
“He doesn’t want to spend the next 40 years as an exile,” Cohen said. “He wants to see China work toward a rule of law. He wants to play a part a role in that.”
Cohen also said a course of instruction is being tailored for Chen. It will include comparative law, international law, Anglo-American law and English, with time allocated for political activities. Chen is a self-taught lawyer with no formal law degree and does not speak English.
The Global Times, a nationalistic state-run newspaper in China called Chen’s story a “colorful bubble,” which “has barely impacted Chinese society.”
“The majority of Chinese have a mature and stable judgment of this country. That is why dissidents, who often create a sensation in the Western media, fail to make a dent among the Chinese,” the paper wrote in an English Op-Ed.
Other commentators have pointed to other examples of political dissidents that fled overseas after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, but found their influence wane.
Cohen, however, said concerns that Chen’s voice will be ineffective overseas are wrong.
“If he stayed in China under the agreed plan that he’d rejected we don’t know at all if he would’ve been free to call any friends in the human rights field or even his family in the village, or could’ve talked to journalists,” Cohen said. “The record of people like him in recent years is poor because they’re afraid to talk about anything because they’re kidnapped, beaten, kidnapped, arrested often.”
He expects social media will help Chen stay connected to his followers in China.
NYU doesn’t comment on individual students, but a spokesman said that Chen received anonymous donations to pay for his stay at NYU.
Chen is a self-taught lawyer with no formal law degree and does not speak English.
Mirela Iverac contributed to this report