Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng , whose dramatic escape from house arrest to the US embassy in Beijing last year sparked a diplomatic crisis, has accused New York University of ending his fellowship there after coming under "unrelenting pressure" from China.
The pressure from the Communist Party was so great that "after we had been in the US just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us", he said in a statement yesterday.
He said that "academic independence and academic freedom in the US are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime". He added: "Communist rulers want me to be too busy earning a living to spend time on human rights. But I will never bow my head to evil or to lies."
Chen has continued to be outspoken on human rights abuses on the mainland since arriving in the US in May last year.
Chen, a high-profile activist who spent years in extra-legal detention and jail for exposing forced abortions in rural Shandong province, put Sino-US relations to the test last year when he fled house arrest in his village and took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing.
Responding to Chen's claims, Jerome Cohen, a law professor who has been Chen's mentor and arranged for him to study at NYU, said he had "failed as a teacher". "Unsupported conspiracy theories lead to unfair accusations," he said. "I am against past attempts [by China] to interfere with other jurisdictions but we should all respect facts."
Chen did not respond to repeated requests for evidence of his claims.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said Chen's fellowship was meant to last one year and had "nothing to do with the Chinese government". The university was "puzzled and saddened to see these false claims directed at us".
Amid accusations that NYU bowed to pressure because of its plans to build a Shanghai campus, Beckman said Chinese authorities had given the go-ahead after Chen arrived in the US.
After his NYU fellowship expires, Chen has at least two new opportunities. Fordham University said Chen was "in negotiations" with its law school, while the Princeton-based Witherspoon Institute, a conservative pro-life think tank, had offered him a position, said Bob Fu, president of Christian group China Aid, who is close to Chen.
Observers fear that Chen has become a politicised figure wooed by US pro-life campaigners and right-wing politicians.
Pro-life Republican congressman Chris Smith told the New York Post he had "no doubt" NYU came under pressure from Beijing and he wanted to summon NYU to testify at congressional hearings. His office did not reply to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Patrick Boehler