Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng's association with those in right-wing politics in the US is likely to hurt his reputation and credibility as a human rights advocate, according to scholars and people familiar with him.
Chen released a statement this week accusing New York University, which hosted him for the past year, of ending his fellowship under pressure from the Chinese government. NYU said the fellowship had always been meant to last a year and the allegations were false.
Chen, a high-profile activist who spent years in extra-legal detention and jail for exposing forced abortions, made a dramatic escape from house arrest in his village in Shandong last year and took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. At the time, the fellowship brokered by NYU China law expert Professor Jerome Cohen helped defuse a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.
But since his arrival in the US, Chen, a sought-after speaker for fundraising events, has been courted by right-wing politicians and pro-life campaigners.
Scholars and people familiar with Chen are now expressing concern that he has unwittingly become a politicised figure, too aligned with the political right.
Professor Jean-Philippe Beja, a senior researcher at the French Centre on Contemporary China, said exiled activists were political capital for a while after they arrived in the West but siding with one political camp would tend to diminish their credibility. "If you appear to be siding with right extremists, it will hurt your image," Beja said. "The problem with exile is that you are isolated, and when you're isolated, it's easy to be taken advantage of."
But Beja said it was understandable that someone like Chen, who went from being an oppressed activist to enjoying hero status in the US, might not fully understand the situation he was getting into. "From his village in Shandong to a place where he is put in high US politics is definitely a destabilising experience. It's very hard for him … I'm sure there are people trying to convince him that's the only way to carry on his advocacy."
But Beja said he hoped Chen could still change his mind. "This is a very sad episode but it's too early to judge."
Chen's statement this week was handled by a public relations company whose website describes its owner as "a street-smart Republican spin doctor".
Chen's phone testimony to a US congressional hearing after his escape last year while he was still on a hospital bed in Beijing was organised by Bob Fu, president of the conservative Christian advocacy group China Aid, and pro-life Republican congressman Chris Smith. They also organised subsequent hearings attended by Chen after his arrival in the US.
Smith alleged in the New York Post last week that NYU had tried to discourage Chen from speaking out against the Chinese government and said he wanted to summon NYU to testify at congressional hearings.
Cohen, a supporter of Chen since 2004, said yesterday the people running Chen's publicity campaign "don't provide any truth" and Smith's allegations were "full of nonsense, totally wrong and has no basis in facts".
He said he was worried that Chen might be hurting his future by choosing to align himself with right-wing politics.
Chen has at least two options when his NYU fellowship expires at the end of this month - Fordham University law school or Witherspoon Institute, a conservative pro-life think tank.
"I think this publicity campaign … is designed to destroy any alternatives for him," Cohen said. "They are very sophisticated people who know how to exploit him."
But he said the choice was Chen's at the end of the day.
"Many of us believe he can do more good for China by focusing on the needs of Chinese public interest and human rights lawyers, but the choice is his and we have to respect it even though we may be disappointed," he said.
Correction: The story was updated at 10:20am June 19 to amend and add quotes from Professor Jean-Philippe Beja, and to correct, in the 12th paragraph, "Chen's statement.." to "Smith's allegations..."