Chen’s departure shows US moral dilemma

By Liu Yan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-26 0:18:01

New York University (NYU) is in an uncomfortable position after Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese activist, accused it of pressing him to leave under pressure from the Chinese government, which NYU has firmly denied.

What's at stake, according to analyses by many US media outlets, is the massive campus NYU is building in Shanghai. NYU attributed the reason for Chen's departure to the expiration of the one-year contract signed between the university and Chen. As the Shanghai campus is set to go into use in September, it is a spotlight that the NYU does not want.

Chen's testing experience last summer concluded with NYU offering him a fellowship position. Though it does not have a tradition of hosting politically sensitive figures, NYU provided Chen with generous academic and living conditions. But one year later, things have taken a sour turn.

Given Chen's past experience and high-profile style, NYU found it difficult to escape the awkwardness of being politicized by Chen's departure. From Chen's statement, he obviously felt disappointed by his host. At the same time, Chen's former advisor and long-time supporter in the NYU was "mystified" by his reaction.

The case is being widely watched due to Chen's symbolic significance, given by the US media and some politicians, and NYU's expansion in China. Quite a number of US universities have set up or are considering setting up branch campuses in China.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal looked at the issue in terms of the risk in educational ventures between US universities and Chinese authorities, sympathizing with public institutions like NYU, which have to strike a delicate balance between building a good relationship with Chinese authorities and maintaining academic independence. US scholars are also debating the degree to which China has affected its academic freedom.

The US has long been narcissistic over its moral standards, so much so that it often loses its facility to think reasonably.

With so many US universities and think tanks having cooperated with their Chinese counterparts, isn't it China that should be more worried about academic independence?

NYU finds itself in an embarrassing situation, which many other businesses and politicians have also found themselves in.

The dilemma stems from their wanting to be both politically correct in their home country and business savvy in China. For instance, when European leaders met with the Dalai Lama, it put business ties with China in an awkward position.

The Chinese public's backlash could easily be dismissed by US media as a wave of nationalism or government intervention. But it happens to be a market, and sometimes, a source of financial support, that the US cannot ignore. This has put purists and pragmatists increasingly at odds.

Economic engagement doesn't necessarily bring about better cultural understanding. Political openness, freedom of speech and ethnic problems are among the issues between China and the West that incur the deepest misunderstanding. To that end, China's poor communication is partly to blame. It also comes from the West's stubborn refusal to try to understand China's logic.

Americans are addicted to stories of a lone person challenging a powerful system. Chen's story is a much more emotional one to them because of his blindness.

But the Chinese public disapproves of individuals taking radical stances and the government puts order as a high priority.

No country is morally impeccable. In fact, Chen's case has exposed the difficulties of grass-roots governance. But advocating confrontation and over-politicizing the issue aren't effective solutions.

Despite the extensive economic engagement between the US and China, some US politicians, activists and journalists are still reluctant to refrain from judging China by US standards and refuse to acknowledge China's logic.

Chen is reportedly in the process of negotiating with other US public institutions for his stay. It might be a trickier task than last time.

The author is a Beijing-based commentator.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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