In This Episode
Almost one year after arriving in the US, the New York Post publishes a story suggesting NYU is trying to sever ties with Guangcheng. Guangcheng alleges the university is bowing to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party. Guangcheng’s hosts at NYU accuse right wing political forces of misleading him. Things get very messy. Where Guangcheng lands next sets him on a path that eventually leads to throwing his support behind Trump for reelection in 2020.
Jerry Cohen: [speaking Mandarin] I’m going to ask him the first question, which is he’s already been here almost five months. And what does he think about all this?
Alison Klayman: This is Jerry Cohen introducing Guangcheng in early October 2012, just weeks after the drama in Washington, D.C. the talk proceeded without a hitch. Guangcheng thanked NYU for the opportunity to study there, and then he talked about his plans for studying the law. [clip of Guangcheng] If you were in the audience, you wouldn’t have a clue how bad things had gotten over the past few months, that Guangcheng had been growing tired of Jerry’s guidance, or that at DC’s Union Station, he tried to escape from the translator NYU assigned to him. None of this was evident that day. [clip of Guangcheng] In fact, through the rest of the fall and into the spring, things quieted down. Guangcheng continued to study law. He worked more on his memoir. But then in June 2013, all those early tensions bubbled up again, this time spilling over in a very public manner.
Colin Jones: Right around the first anniversary of Guangcheng’s arrival in New York. The New York Post published a story suggesting the university was pushing him out. The anonymous sources it cited said that NYU had been pressured by the Chinese government after the post article was published. Guangcheng released his own statement. He reiterated what the post had claimed, writing that as early as 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 3 or 4 months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us. The Post article, together with this statement from Guangcheng, kicked up what was basically a shitstorm in the press.
[clip of Brian Lehrer]: So you may have read in the tabloids over the weekend that NYU is in the process of kicking out Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng.
[news clip]: Chen says NYU is pushing him out because of the, quote, “Unrelenting pressure of the Chinese Communist Party.” But NYU has hit back, saying they are puzzled and saddened by Chen’s fictional allegations.
Colin Jones: Jerry was traveling in China when the story broke. Despite the 12 hour timezone difference, he called in to The Brian Lehrer Show to refute the allegations.
[clip of Brian Lehrer]: So the way this is being reported makes it sound like the university is throwing Chen and his family out on the street. What’s your version of what’s going on here?
Jerry Cohen: That’s nonsense. That’s just nonsense. If I give you a fellowship for a year and I spend several hundred thousand dollars on you, and you’re told it’s only for a year and you’re given 7 or 8 months notice, for sure that it’s only a year. Am I throwing you out on the street? Come on. It’s just silly.
[clip of Brian Lehrer]: Well, this is what he says. So how would he have misunderstood it so much?
Jerry Cohen: Well, I don’t know. He’s in the hands of people who have helped him twist things in a way that’s sad and unfortunate.
Colin Jones: When Jerry says Guangcheng had fallen into the hands of people who helped twist things, he was talking about one person in particular, pastor Bob Fu. And so is Bob’s side of the story that we wanted to hear. I’m Colin Jones.
Alison Klayman: I’m Alison Klayman, and this is episode six of Dissident at the Doorstep.
Colin Jones: When Guangcheng arrived in the US, he was brought in to a whole ecosystem of American liberals while he was hosted at NYU. He was funded by George Soros, looked out for by Jerry, and celebrated by Hollywood celebrities and major human rights organizations. Nowadays, ten years later, Guangdong is no longer on speaking terms with almost any of these people, and his livelihood and his social world are almost entirely provided by conservatives. [ambient chatter] A lot of how Guangcheng got from one place to the other has to do with this place. Midland, Texas. Home base to Bob Fu for the past 20 years and the site of his nonprofit, ChinaAid. [ambient chatter] The building ChinaAid is housed in isn’t much to look at. It’s a one story brick house painted a pale yellow color, sitting just off a fairly major road. But once you’re through the door, you can see immediately that this office and Bob himself are incredibly well connected. The walls of the foyer are covered in clippings of Bob in the local paper. Next to these are the front page of the Wall Street Journal with Bob and Congressman Chris Smith. There’s another picture of Bob with the Dalai Lama and a recent snapshot from ChinaAid’s 20th Anniversary gala, where both Ted Cruz and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick showed up. And then there are these two paintings in the corner, both portraits of Bob.
Bob Fu: The ugly version of Bob Fu, the beautified version of Bob Fu— [laughter]
Colin Jones: Both paintings were done by George W/ Bush. In the first painting, the one Bob calls the ugly version. Our former president has captured Bob’s likeness, but it also sort of looks like Bob’s face is melting off. So Bush tried again.
Bob Fu: So I think he, painted this first and maybe regretted it and, said, okay, Bob, maybe this is not the most satisfactory version.
Colin Jones: Taking all this in. You can see why Jerry might have thought that Bob’s overtures to Guangcheng were politically motivated.
Alison Klayman: The way Bob sees it, though, NYU was the source of the real conspiracy in early summer 2013. He got a distress call from Guangcheng.
Bob Fu: He said, well, I’m facing the homeless situation. Now. You, you issue the ultimatum? By this day, you have to get out.
Alison Klayman: According to Bob, Guangcheng’s entire fellowship at NYU had been made possible by a corrupt bargain worked out between the CCP, the Obama administration, and the university.
Bob Fu: You know, Hillary Clinton directly communicated to take this hot potato to make sure there should be some agreement, behind the scenes, that, okay, we had it with this guy to you. You have to do something.
Alison Klayman: The hot potato here is Guangcheng. What Bob saying is that there was a tacit agreement not to let Guangcheng be too much of a thorn in China’s side after coming to the US. According to Bob, when Guangcheng didn’t play ball. NYU started looking for a way out. To do that, the university cut a three year fellowship down to one. Bob says Guangcheng had seen the paperwork to prove it.
Bob Fu: On record he said he saw the document is three years agreement in NYU. And yet NYU said, oh, no. This is, from the very beginning is one year. And the agreement in written forms was, you know, his pocket in his, jacket. But it was mysteriously taken away and lost.
Alison Klayman: We asked Guangcheng about this. He confirmed what Bob said, but added some important details. According to Guangcheng, back when he was inside the US Embassy in Beijing, the first proposal the Americans approached China with was a three year fellowship at NYU. China rejected this, and the length of his offer was shortened to a single year. But Guangcheng always understood that as a provisional agreement. When he first arrived in New York, it seemed as if he might be able to stay longer. And then that one year became a very firm deadline.
Colin Jones: Everyone we spoke with from NYU was adamant that Guangcheng’s fellowship was only supposed to last one year. Here’s Guangcheng’s translator, Mattie Bekink.
Mattie Bekink: I knew that the fellowship was going to be for one year, because I had literally told him that within about two weeks of his arrival of United States, and that it was constantly part of the process.
Colin Jones: Mattie says she even helped Guangcheng and his family arrange for long term visas once they arrived in New York. She did this, she says, because the original visas NYU sponsored were only good for a year. There’s evidence to back up what Mattie’s saying. In early May 2012, while Guangcheng was being treated at Chaoyang Hospital and the deal that would bring him to New York was still being hashed out, Jerry spoke with PBS NewsHour’s Ray Suarez.
[clip of Ray Suarez]: Would you expect your friend to return to China when he’s done?
Jerry Cohen: We would be delighted to have him come. The idea would be that he could come for up to a year, and at that point he’ll be more comfortable with himself, he’ll be more adjusted to freedom and he’ll have to decide what next.
Colin Jones: So even before Guangcheng had left China, Jerry was saying publicly that Guangcheng would be at NYU for one year at most.
Alison Klayman: But for Bob and for Guangcheng. The details of the length of the fellowship are just part of what they see as the bigger picture, which is that Jerry and NYU had deeply conflicted interests. For starters, there was NYU’s new Shanghai campus, opening in 2012, the same year Guangcheng arrived in the US. NYU Shanghai was the first time an American research university had partnered with the Chinese government to build a degree granting school in China. NYU’s then president, John Sexton, saw NYU Shanghai as a key step in globalizing the university. But for Guangcheng and Bob, the Shanghai campus gave the Chinese government leverage to make things hard for Guangcheng in New York.
Richard Yeh: [voice over] The CCP was applying pressure. That’s, of course, obvious.
Alison Klayman: Guangcheng believes that China’s ambassador to the U.S. at the time, Zhang Yesui, had personally put pressure on NYU leadership to cancel his fellowship. He also mentioned a member of NYU’s board of trustees, a construction mogul named Wang Wenliang in 2009. Wang’s company donated money to launch NYU’s U.S. China Center. Then, in the spring of 2012, right as the deal to host Guangcheng was being finalized, Wang pledged another $25 million to the university. Guangcheng claims this money was an indirect payment from the CCP to NYU, essentially a bribe to convince the university to cut ties with Guangcheng.
Richard Yeh: [voice over] How could it have been a personal donation? Look at how Wang Wenliang exploits these workers. How he exploited those who worked for him. Is he a generous man? Would he donates so much money all at once.
Colin Jones: The basic premise that Guangcheng and Bob are arguing is correct. NYU, like many American universities, is heavily reliant on private donors. Unlike most other universities, it has a direct relationship with the Chinese government. These interests shape the university’s policies. But Bob and Guangcheng claim something more specific happened that NYU had kicked out Guangcheng due to Chinese pressure. So I asked Bob how such a pressure campaign would actually work. Just on a practical level. Do you think it would? So, was it you think pressure on like John Sexton, the then president of NYU over NYU Shanghai, or do you think it was at a government level?
Bob Fu: I have no, direct evidence. But, you know, we can only tell from the precedents from the, what? The patterns of the communist party’s behavior. There’s no surprise. China holds some cards, right?
Colin Jones: In other words, Bob doesn’t need proof that the CCP used its power to pressure NYU. It’s enough to know that the CCP had tried to influence American universities before. And in NYU’s case. It had the ability to do so. The university is fundamentally conflicted. And for Bob and Guangcheng, I think that means it’s fundamentally corrupt. But this is all just the start of making a case for what Bob and Guangcheng claimed happen. It doesn’t demonstrate anything more than plausibility. We know of no evidence that NYU decided to end Guangcheng’s fellowship prematurely. We’ve also seen no evidence that the university’s interests in China affected any decisions it made concerning Guangcheng. We made several attempts to schedule an interview with someone from NYU, but they failed to follow up on her requests.
Alison Klayman: What was certain was that Guangcheng’s public statement and the press that followed it, transformed the relationship between NYU and Bob. While it had never been great exactly after that spring, the knives came out.
Bob Fu: Jerry was quoted and accusing my wife is a dirty spy. Or, you know, tried to spy Chen Guangcheng.
Alison Klayman: When Bob’s wife Heidi first met with Guangcheng just after he’d arrived in the US, she’d gifted him an iPad. NYU staff later scanned the device to make sure it was safe. And when they did that, they discovered software on it that would allow someone to track Guangcheng’s movements and communications. NYU kept the iPad and then sat on these findings for almost a year. Then, shortly after, Guangcheng accused NYU of kicking him out. Jerry told a Reuters reporter that people who are supposedly out there to help Guangcheng had given him a, quote, “Trojan horse.” This would be a serious charge under any circumstances. But within the community of Chinese exiles, where double agents and informants are a constant concern. It had an especially sharp edge and it turned out to be false.
Bob Fu: I was glad the NYU vice president later on apologized, and we kind of reached, what do you call the legal term, basically?
Colin Jones: Settlement?
Bob Fu: Yeah settlement.
Alison Klayman: The supposed spyware that NYU discovered. It turned out to be run of the mill stuff. Geo tracking and remote backups, which are part of Apple’s operating system. NYU and Jerry jointly issued a public retraction saying they had misunderstood the technology. Things were a mess, and Guangcheng still needed a place to go next. That’s after the break.
Colin Jones: While the dispute between Guangcheng and NYU played out in public through the summer of 2013, behind the scenes, Jerry continued to use his connections to try to help Guangcheng find a new academic home. It was around that time that Martin Flaherty says he got a call from someone at the State Department. Martin is a professor of international human rights at Fordham Law School.
Martin Flaherty: I think my initial approach was by, Mike Posner, who at the time was Assistant Secretary of State for, democracy, Human Rights and labor at the State Department. And so Mike approached me and said that, Chen’s time at NYU was coming to a close and that he needed, you know, another institutional home.
Colin Jones: Martin is also the co-director of Fordham’s Leitner Center, which focuses on human rights law. It was there, Martin says, that Mike Posner thought Guangcheng could land. We reached out to Mike for comment. He did not respond.
Martin Flaherty: And I said immediately, absolutely, we would love to host him. We thought it would be to speak selfishly, really good for our program, you know, to have one of the most prominent human rights advocates with us. The one caveat I told Mike was we didn’t have any money.
Alison Klayman: When Guangcheng said the Obama administration was trying to sabotage his NYU fellowship, I was skeptical that anyone over there was still thinking about him. So I was surprised to learn that not only was Mike Posner, a high ranking State Department official, thinking about Guangcheng, he was trying to help Guangcheng line up a new gig to fund the position. Jerry tapped a man named Andrew Duncan, a private equity exec turned human rights advocate, film producer and major China critic.
Jerry Cohen: Andrew Duncan was willing to sponsor this, and he had put up or was I willing to pay, committed $900,000 for a three year total, 300 a year, 250. Can you imagine that? For Chen, an income of 250 at 50 year for his assistant.
Alison Klayman: And so Martin and his co-director at the Leitner Center started getting the paperwork together.
Martin Flaherty: And then one day, out of the blue, I recall getting an email essentially saying that the law school cannot host Chen Guangcheng, because of concerns expressed by the dean of the business school that this would adversely impact applications from China. And so, we had to tell him that the deal was off.
Colin Jones: The email was from Fordham’s president, Father Joseph McShane. It was almost exactly the kind of scenario that Guangcheng and Bob believed happened at NYU, a major university, refusing Guangcheng a position there because of its financial ties to China. Except for what happened next. After being told that Guangcheng couldn’t come to Fordham. Martin says his colleague fired back with a blistering email.
Martin Flaherty: That started with, Dear Father McShane, you should be ashamed of yourself. And basically said you are throwing under the bus. One of the most prominent human rights activists in the world. And oh, by the way, one of the issues that this person who you are rejecting was involved with was fighting forced abortions in China.
Colin Jones: That mattered to Fordham because it’s a Jesuit school. Martin’s colleague closed by saying that if Father McShane did not reconsider, she would go to the press and to Congress.
Martin Flaherty: So within 24 hours, we got a response. And the response was to renege on the reneging. And so it was okay, he can come.
Colin Jones: With the deal back on. Martin started meeting regularly with Jerry and Guangcheng to work out the transition. They were having these meetings through June 2013, when Guangcheng publicly accused NYU of bowing to Chinese pressure. It was around that time that Martin remembers hearing some rumors.
Martin Flaherty: I think it was during some of those June meetings that we were getting wind of. There was, you know, what became a competing offer.
Colin Jones: And what did you know about that?
Martin Flaherty: What we started to hear was that the offer was, a kind of consortium of politically conservative Catholic groups in the United States.
Alison Klayman: Turns out Bob had been busy, too, while Jerry was trying to work out a deal for Guangcheng to stay in New York. Bob had been working his own connections.
Bob Fu: So Guangcheng faced a homeless situation. And, he needs an academic kind of setting and, institution.
Alison Klayman: So Bob reached out to an old friend.
Bob Fu: Congressman Smith, who’s a Catholic, of course. So he talked to Cardinal Dolan.
Alison Klayman: That’s Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Then Bob says they brought in another person, a professor at Princeton University named Robert George.
Robert George: Like many Americans, I couldn’t help but admire the courage, and the fortitude of this blind, largely self educated, lawyer, exposing the abuses, especially in the area of forced abortion of the Communist Party in China.
Alison Klayman: Robert is a legal scholar and philosopher. Far and away, his main focus is the United States. Even so, he says, he had followed Guangcheng’s story in the news. And when he got the call from Bob, he was shocked to hear that Guangcheng would be leaving NYU.
Robert George: What is there not to like about having him on your campus? Having him on your staff? If you’re poor and you can’t afford the extra shekels, I can understand that. I don’t think NYU is poor.
Alison Klayman: Bob suggested to Robert that Guangcheng could be placed at the Witherspoon Institute, the conservative think tank that Robert helped found.
Robert George: So when Bob called me and filled me in a bit more on the details and made it clear that that NYU wasn’t going to budge. Well, when I heard all that, I thought, well, I’m not going to leave this hero, this great champion of human rights. We can’t leave this guy out in the cold.
Colin Jones: Meanwhile, Martin was still working on a Fordham deal. He said that he understood Witherspoon as a competitor during their meetings with Guangcheng. Martin and Jerry brought this up.
Martin Flaherty: We started to raise, you know, for him what would have been the pros and cons of going one place rather than the other?
Colin Jones: Can you kind of explain that conversation?
Martin Flaherty: Yeah. Well, you know, for us. We thought that as deft and as insightful, and as successful he was at navigating human rights work in China. He was really knew nothing about the political setting in the United States.
Colin Jones: Here is where we should say a couple words about the institute that Robert founded. Witherspoon. Witherspoon has deep ties to the conservative wing of American Catholicism, with a president who has served as a national official for Opus Dei, an international Catholic organization with a conservative interpretation of the church’s mission. Weatherspoon fellows have spoken out against pornography, divorce and capital punishment, all in line with Catholic social teaching. The Institute has been particularly fervent in its advocacy for what it calls a, quote, “Historical understanding of marriage and human sexuality,” unquote. In 2012, it funded a kind of nasty study with questionable methodology, which concluded that children whose parents had had same sex relationships were more likely to end up less educated, unemployed and poor. And of course, Witherspoon is adamantly pro-life.
Alison Klayman: Martin worried that if Guangcheng partnered with conservative Catholics, it might limit his influence in what Martin calls the mainstream human rights community.
Martin Flaherty: That’s going to be human rights watch human rights first. It’s going to be the U.S. State Department. It’s going to be most of the law school based human rights programs.
Alison Klayman: In that mainstream community. Human rights people promoted a fairly broad basket of rights, including reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. And then there was a right wing side of human rights, which Martin says is primarily concerned with religious freedom and pro-life issues.
Martin Flaherty: With regard to China. There is, I’m happy to say, bipartisan support. But part of the bipartisan support on the sort of GOP side really focuses on two issues. Religious freedom, in particular, religious freedom, freedom for Christians in China. And the opposition of forced abortion. We were trying to convey to him that if you throw in your lot with a group that is just concerned about those two issues, you are going to lose your voice in the mainstream human rights community in the United States.
Alison Klayman: Martin was very direct with Guangcheng.
Martin Flaherty: I mean, we actually put it to him how can you pursue human rights with groups that oppose the human rights of groups like LGBTQ2+ people? And that, I think, was my low point in dealing with him. He said, frankly, I don’t care. Those aren’t really human rights. I don’t care about those people.
Alison Klayman: Guangcheng says he does not remember having this conversation with Martin. But when we asked him about his views on gay rights, he told us he didn’t want to talk about it. On his Twitter feed. He frequently retweets anti-trans stories and messages.
Colin Jones: Martin told us he thought the reason Witherspoon had any interest in Guangcheng was because of his work against forced abortion in China. Someone we spoke with at NYU made a similar point. When I spoke with Robert George, I laid out their statement for him. You know, this is a pro-life, anti-abortion think tank. And that Guangcheng was anti-abortion enough to be brought here. And and that was the reason. And I’m I just want to know what you have to say to that.
Robert George: Shame on whoever at NYU said that to you. They had every opportunity to keep Guangcheng. For reasons that are simply unfathomable to me. They cut him loose when we learned about it. We immediately provided him with an institutional home. No conditions. Didn’t say what he could or couldn’t say about abortion or anything else. Just told him to continue to do the good work you were doing in informing the American people in the broader world, public about what is happening in China. And when we did that. People at NYU have the audacity to accuse us of cynicism. That is outrageous. Shame on them.
Alison Klayman: Robert and Witherspoon wanted to help Guangcheng and his family, providing for him when NYU support was coming to an end. But I don’t necessarily think it’s outrageous to notice that Guangcheng’s work on forced abortion made him a hero to a certain kind of American conservative. This had been happening since he arrived in the US, and I have a hard time identifying what other overlap there might be between Guangcheng’s work and what the Witherspoon Institute does, which at the time had nothing to do with China at all.
Colin Jones: In the end, Witherspoon was the only option. The man who was supposed to fund Guangcheng’s position at Fordham, Andrew Duncan, backed out suddenly and the whole deal collapsed. I spoke with Andrew on the phone and asked him for an interview. He declined. Here, though, is how Jerry remembers it.
Jerry Cohen: I think Andrew may have offended the Fordham people. There was some failure to get along in the meantime. Then Chen starts denouncing NYU, and at that point, Andrew gave up.
Colin Jones: Whether Guangcheng would have decided to go to Fordham or Witherspoon. There was ultimately no real choice, and in the fall of 2013, Witherspoon announced that a new fellow was coming to the Institute. The first Chinese national that they had ever hosted. Guangcheng never lived in Princeton. After New York, he and his family moved to the D.C. area, and he set up an affiliation with the Catholic University of America. Witherspoon helped make the connection and continued to support him financially for a number of years, even though Guangcheng was now taking conservative money. He continued to heed Jerry Cohen’s advice to avoid being branded as a partisan, for example. At the same time he became a Witherspoon fellow. Guangcheng also accepted a position at the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which is named after the former Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos. In this way, Guangcheng maintained an air of neutrality, staying out of the daily battles of U.S. politics for several years after his departure from NYU. Eventually, though, he would join the fray. Do you remember meeting him that day?
Bill Saunders: And. Well, I remember meeting him. He had an office in the basement, and that sounds worse than it is. It’s like the bottom floor of the main administrative building. There’s a lot of kind of centers have offices there.
Colin Jones: This is Bill Saunders, who, you might remember, helped us arrange an interview with Guangcheng. He’s Guangcheng’s closest colleague at Catholic. As Bill remembers that he began working at Catholic in the summer of 2017, a little over three years after Guangcheng had struck up an affiliation with the university.
Bill Saunders: I think Weatherspoon was still supporting him, but he wasn’t with Weatherspoon. They would get grants to support him, but he was here and but he was he was a little bit just to use an expression like dying on the vine. He was kind of not present.
Colin Jones: Bill had been hired on to set up a new center for human rights, as well as a master’s program. He has a long track record in the field. In the 1990s, he joined with other Catholics to fly into central Sudan, literally in the middle of a civil war to bring humanitarian aid to an ethnic minority group holed up in the Nuba mountains. Since the early 2000, Bill has turned his focus to the United States and especially to abortion. Before coming to Catholic, he served on an executive committee at the Federalist Society as senior counsel for Americans United for life and a senior vice president at the Family Research Council. In 2009, that group settled a lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed that Bill had sexually harassed her. Bill says he doesn’t know what the allegations there might have been, but if there were any allegations of sexual harassment or otherwise against him, he denies them. At Catholic, Bill wanted to build a human rights program anchored in conservative Catholic social teaching. Central to that is the rights of the unborn.
Bill Saunders: Because I think the central thing about human rights is the rights of humans, whether it’s, zygote or a five year old African boy. Each one’s a human being.
Alison Klayman: Where Guangcheng fits in this world has been a little tough to figure out.
Bill Saunders: He’s not a Catholic and he’s not a Christian, but he’s not an anti-Christian or an anti anything.
Alison Klayman: Guangcheng is also not anti-abortion, though his views on abortion are not exactly pro-choice either. In any case, at Catholic, the idea has always been to find Guangcheng a role in the classroom. But almost ten years since he arrived there, it’s still very much a work in progress.
Bill Saunders: Well, his academic roles are still being developed. We’re actually talking about him teaching a series of classes in the spring to this internship program. We have teaching people about how to do human rights.
Alison Klayman: When asked what kind of things Guangcheng could teach. Bill gave us an example.
Bill Saunders: Just the fundamental thing is, you know, you’re under house arrest in your home, you know, which means you’re surrounded all the time. You have a cell phone but the battery runs down. What are you going to do about it? Guangcheng got a flashlight from the guards. For some reason, he used the battery in the flashlight to charge the battery in the phone. And he contacted Bob Fu. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that people need to understand. Because if you looked at that situation Guangcheng was in, you would say, it’s hopeless. It ain’t hopeless. It’s never hopeless.
Alison Klayman: That’s a lovely sentiment. But having Guangcheng tell students about the ordeals of his incarceration once a semester isn’t really a job. It’s not enough to keep him occupied. It raised a question for us. What exactly has Guangcheng been up to at Catholic these past years?
Colin Jones: Finding an answer to that isn’t straightforward. After all the attention and scrutiny Guangcheng received during his first year in the US, for the next several years, public information about his life is a lot harder to come by. If you wanted to see what Guangcheng was up to, the best place to look was online.
Chen Guangcheng: Hi. This is a Chen Guangcheng. This is my official YouTube page.
Colin Jones: Guangcheng posted this clip in 2015 announcing the birth of his YouTube channel. In the video, which runs only a couple more seconds, Guangcheng stands in front of an official looking background for the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. A bunch of other videos followed. They cover a range of topics and experiences trips to the Berlin Wall. [clip of Guangcheng] And Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. [clip of Guangcheng] A primer on how to use Twitter if you’re blind. [clip of Guangcheng] Or a plea on behalf of Liu Xia, widow to the dissident Liu Xiaobo. clip of Guangcheng] But in virtually every single video on this channel, at least everyone I watched, Guangcheng winds up in the same place, exhorting his viewers to recognize the evils of the CCP. It’s as if it’s hard for him to sustain a train of thought about anything else. One video from February 14th, 2016 is called Valentine’s Day. Communism kills the Human Spirit. [clip of Guangcheng]
Alison Klayman: This video belongs to a whole genre of Guangcheng videos, where he’s filmed himself in public space on Catholic University’s campus. This makes for some pretty funny contrasts, like you’ll see a pair of monks in Franciscan robes stroll by behind him while he’s making a point about how China doesn’t have elections. In his Valentine’s Day video, Guangcheng is sitting by himself in the middle of what looks like the student center at Catholic College. Kids are eating and talking to each other in the near background. On one wall, a flat screen TV is playing news about Michael Flynn leaving the Trump administration. While on the wall directly behind Guangcheng is the Latin phrase “Deus Lux Mea Est.” God is my light. What Guangcheng wants to say has little to do with any of this. [clip of Guangcheng] Guangcheng says that on Valentine’s Day, it can seem like you need to have a lover. But as he sees it, it’s far more important to be a righteous and humane person yourself. Then he pivots. He says that actually in China, ever since the Communist dictator seized power, the Communist Party has been destroying the bonds that hold people together. Guangcheng continues in this vein for the remaining 17 minutes of the video, making the case that CCP rule essentially destroys people’s ability to care about each other. At one point, as evidence, he recalls the torture he endured while incarcerated. [clip of Guangcheng] Even though Guangcheng was blind. He says these people still treated him without an ounce of humanity. The party’s dictatorship had saturated their brains and drained them of normal human sympathies. And let me remind you, this was Guangcheng’s Valentine’s Day video.
Colin Jones: By the numbers. The audience for this kind of thing has been pretty small. When I watched the Valentine’s video, it only had about 100 views. The views for almost all other videos on Guangcheng’s YouTube channel fall in the same range somewhere in the low hundreds, with many in the tens looking over all of them. I was struck by how far he’d come since his first months at NYU. Jerry’s expectation was that Guangcheng would continue his legal studies and become a public intellectual, with solid footing as an academic. To that end, he was put through a crash course in American law, and he was assigned a PR team to manage his image. At Catholic. There seems to have been much less pressure for Guangcheng to conform to anyone else’s vision for him. It also seems, though, like there was not much plan for him at all. In these YouTube videos, he appears to be a man at loose ends, consumed by an intensely personal hatred for the CCP. Casting about online for an audience and for relevancy. In most ways, Guangcheng’s Twitter feed mirrored what he’s doing on YouTube. The vast majority of its content was focused on the CCP. But on Twitter, something else was happening, too. Guangcheng was starting to voice his opinions about American politics, and his opinions were starting to shift. Well, through 2016, he maintained an air of non partisanship, at least publicly. In 2015, for example, Guangcheng signed a copy of his book for former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, but he also marked the three year anniversary of his arrival in the US by tweeting his thanks to Hillary Clinton for her work getting him out of China. Later, he got together with Jerry Cohen again to give a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations and as late as November 2016 Guangcheng tweeted an article by Gary Locke. The Obama appointed ambassador who helped negotiate his exit from China. Clearly, at this point, Guangcheng was still interested in associating himself with both parties.
Alison Klayman: At the same time, it was also clear that Guangcheng was cultivating an interest in one man, Donald Trump. After Trump’s election, Guangcheng tweeted an enthusiastic congratulations to the new president. Three exclamation points. Guangcheng was also inspired to make a YouTube video about why America’s so-called free press got the election so wrong. [clip of Guangcheng] Considering the heated emotions of those early weeks after Trump’s win. Guangcheng’s response was diplomatic. In the same video, he also says the people who were protesting Trump’s victory were simply expressing their civil rights. But over the next couple of years, Guangcheng began to express more public support for Trump. He tweeted a long post written by a Chinese expat in the US that was basically an apology for all of Trump’s most obscene faults. It concluded Trump is not perfect. Dwelling on his flaws and mistakes is an escape from the big questions of national destiny. War and peace. Life and death. That was followed by more tweets, like one praising Trump for taking a hard line approach to Kim Jong Un. If you remember, it was when Trump called Kim a sick puppy and Kim called Trump mentally deranged, and then they both threatened to use nuclear weapons.
Colin Jones: With these tweets, Guangcheng found himself among a community of like minded compatriots. One of the many weird and surprising things about Trump’s presidency was just how many Chinese liberals and democracy activists got excited about him. It was surprising because I thought this was a group who would be turned off by Trump’s racism and xenophobia. Not only that, Trump also didn’t seem to care much about their professed values of free press democracy, rule of law, that kind of thing. But Trump had one big thing going for him. He spent a lot of time talking about.
[clip of Donald Trump]: China, China. China. China. China.
Colin Jones: Initially, Trump’s main point was that China had been taking advantage of the US on trade.
[clip of Donald Trump]: People say, oh, you don’t like China? No, I love them. But their leaders are much smarter than our leaders.
Colin Jones: But as his presidency progressed and as the tariffs he placed on Chinese goods gave way to an open trade war, Trump began to portray China as America’s number one adversary. And this is when you really began to see Chinese dissidents and former student leaders from Tiananmen Square publicly praising our 45th president. Guangcheng was right there with them. He welcomed Trump’s trade war with China, and his Trump’s rhetoric grew increasingly hostile. Guangcheng tweeted out videos of Trump speeches telling his followers that they were worth a listen.
[clip of Donald Trump]: No dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve.
Colin Jones: Two years later, Guangcheng took the stage at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Chen Guangcheng: The U.S. must use these values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law to counter a coalition of other democracies to stop CCP’s aggression. President Trump had led on this, and we need the other countries to join him in this fight. A fight for our future. We need to support, vote and fight for President Trump for the sake of the world. Thank you.
Colin Jones: With this full throated endorsement of Trump’s reelection, Guangcheng had finally and very publicly chosen a side. In the years since, he’s doubled down on this choice. That’s next on Dissident at the Doorstep. Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Alison Klayman, Yangyang Cheng and me, Colin Jones. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producers are Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee.