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Lawmaker, university spar over 'control' of Chinese dissident in U.S.

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng speaks to journalists following an appearance in New York May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng speaks to journalists following an appearance in New York May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Paul Eckert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressman who has been blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng's main champion in Washington said people working for New York University have tried to keep him from meeting Chen, barging into a meeting on Capitol Hill and pulling Chen out on one occasion.

U.S. Representative Chris Smith, an outspoken supporter of Chinese dissidents since the 1980s, described repeated instances of various people he says were from NYU interfering in his attempts to meet with Chen.

NYU spokesman John Beckman in an email vigorously disputed the assertion that its representatives may have been involved in improper interference or control of Chen during his meetings with lawmakers and others, stressing that anyone present was there to help Chen at his request.

The encounters took place both in Washington and at NYU. Chen has been a research fellow at NYU Law School since he flew to the United States in May 2012 after he escaped from house arrest in his village in Shandong province and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Chen has accused NYU of asking him to leave because of "unrelenting pressure" from China. NYU denies this, saying he is leaving because his fellowship for one year is ending.

Some of Chen's supporters suggest NYU fears his strident public criticism of China will complicate the university's plans to build a campus in Shanghai - an assertion NYU has also dismissed.

"Every time I've met with him, except once, only because I insisted, there was always somebody from the university - I don't know who they are or who they are reporting to - taking notes on everything," Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said in an interview.

The one meeting Smith had without Chen being escorted was shortly after Chen received a human rights award on Capitol Hill on January 29. It took place in Smith's office in the Rayburn Office Building but it was interrupted and halted before Smith was ready, he said.

A lady who appeared to be Chinese "insisted on translating, and I said 'with all due respect, I want a little private time with the great Chen Guangcheng', and I closed the door. She starts calling his phone over and over and over again, like four or five times," said Smith.

"And finally after a half hour, because I had asked for a half-hour meeting, my door flies open and she says ‘the meeting's over and she grabs him by the arm and lifts him up'," he said.

NYU's Beckman told Reuters any NYU staff accompanying Chen "were people who provided help to an individual who is blind, is unable to speak English, and was new to the U.S.; it seems very ungracious for their efforts on Mr. Chen's behalf to be tarnished in this way".

"The reality is that he's held many press conferences and interviews, attended congressional hearings, and is writing a book about his life, and all NYU has ever done has provided staff and support to facilitate his activities, wishes, schedule, and family," he said in the email.

"FANTASY"

Matt Dorf, a communications strategist who was hired by NYU to advise Chen in his first couple of months in the United States, said Chen himself made the decisions on who he would meet.

"If the congressman or others felt they did not have proper access to Chen Guangcheng it was because Chen Guangcheng had made a decision not to speak with them because he was controlling all of the meetings in his whole schedule," he said in reference to the period from May through July last year.

He also said that the only people he ever saw taking notes in meetings were Chen's wife and a translator.

A spokeswoman for Chen said he was not currently giving interviews. His eldest brother, Chen Guangfu, told Reuters that Chen told him that "at this stage, he can't comment on certain matters and that's why he's not answering the requests from many media organizations. He didn't say why."

China's state-run Global Times, run by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, said Chen was living in a "fantasy" and should realize he had outstayed his welcome.

"Chen's lack of academic qualifications and language competence meant he could not stay long-term. His embarrassing situation mirrors the fate of many Chinese 'pro-democratic activists' in the 1980s," the newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday.

The 60-year-old Smith, who has represented his central New Jersey district for 32 years, said he started working on human rights issues in 1982, focusing on Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

"Everything is about control," Smith said of dealing with NYU representatives when trying to arrange meetings with Chen. "It was that way throughout the whole process."

During another recent chat with Chen, Smith said, "I had two people there and they had note pads. I asked 'who are you reporting to?' and they wouldn't tell me."

"I don't find that friendly. I find that dangerous, in terms of Chen."

Smith, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee that monitors global human rights, said he has been able to talk to Chen by telephone, through a translator, with relative ease.

But Smith said he has had trouble meeting Chen in person as many as a dozen times, beginning with Chen's arrival at Newark Airport in May 2012 and "every trip I made up there" to NYU.

Dorf denied that Smith had difficulty gaining access to Chen when the Chinese dissident arrived at NYU after flying into the United States, saying it was the first meeting that Chen had, it lasted about half an hour, and the lawmaker's staff took photographs of them together.

Smith sees the situation differently: "There was this control the likes of which made me say 'Oh my God. What is going on here?'."

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, and Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Martin Howell)

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