The complicated saga of the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has taken another bizarre turn, with Reuters reporting that he was given an iPad and a smartphone that were secretly loaded with spyware to monitor his whereabouts and communications when he arrived at New York University last year.
Chen, who was taken in by NYU after dramatically escaping from house arrest in China, has since accused the university of kicking him out to protect its soon-to-launch campus in Shanghai. The resulting controversy has brought a cast of strange characters into the limelight, from a Chinese evangelical preacher in Texas to a conservative Bush administration spin doctor.
Here are a few of the pivotal players in the increasingly convoluted Chen Guangcheng soap opera:
A friend and supporter of Chen’s, 45-year-old Chinese pastor Bob Fu runs Texas-based ChinaAid, a charity that has raised millions of dollars to support Christian activism in China. It was his wife, Heidi Cai, who gave Chen the iPad and smarthphones, but Fu has denied any knowledge of the alleged spyware, calling the Reuters claims “ridiculous” and “like a 007 thing.”
Fu fled China in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square crackdown and set himself up as a Christian pastor in Midland, Texas. He and Cai previously taught English at a Communist Party school in Beijing at the same time as holding secret Bible study classes; he once referred to himself as “God’s double agent.” Fu was one of the first to know that Chen had escaped house arrest last year, facilitating his flight to the US and supporting his fellowship at NYU.
Fu also has close ties to conservative Republicans, including former president George W. Bush and New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House Human Rights subcommittee, who like Chen has taken China to task for forced abortions under its one-child policy.
Cohen is an NYU law professor and former mentor to Chen. He helped arrange Chen’s fellowship at NYU and served as Reuters’ primary source for the spyware allegations, confirming that technicians at the university had found malicious software on Chen’s devices. Referring to Fu and Cai, he said “these people were supposedly out to help him and they give him a kind of Trojan horse that would have enabled them to monitor his communications secretly.”
Although he supported Chen while at NYU, Cohen has been critical of his accusations that the university had forced him to leave, saying “you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.” He has also warned Chen against becoming co-opted by conservative political interest groups in the United States. ”Mr Chen seems to be taking advice from a group that thrives on accusation, rumor, suspicion, gossip and malice,” Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.
A media consultant working with Chen, Corallo is a senior advisor at the Ashcroft Group, a media consultancy, and former US Attorney General spokesman. His profile on the group’s website describes him as “a street-smart Republican spin doctor.” Corallo disputes Cohen’s version of events, saying the Apple devices were taken from Chen by NYU before being used, and were brand new in the first place. He claims that Chen was not told by NYU about any tracking or listening mechanisms.
Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, has long been a supporter of Chinese dissidents, particularly Chen, whom he has championed and once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A pro-life advocate, Smith has also worked with Fu and denies claims that Chen has been co-opted into the Christian right.
Smith has accused people working for New York University of trying to limit his access to Chen, who is blind and has limited English. “Every time I’ve met with him, except once, only because I insisted, there was always somebody from the university,” Smith told Reuters, “I don’t know who they are or who they are reporting to—taking notes and everything.”
Best known for campaigning against forced abortions in China, Chen is a self-taught legal activist who spent four years in a Chinese prison until 2010 when he was released and put under house arrest. In April last year he escaped and fled to the US embassy before flying to New York to take up a negotiated fellowship at NYU.
Although the pro-life movement has claimed him as one of its own, it’s not clear what Chen’s views on abortion actually are. Cohen claims Chen is opposed to forced abortions but believes in a woman’s right to choose.
His deepening involvement with conservative and pro-life groups has led to speculation that Chen may not move to another university (Fordham has been mentioned as a possibility) and will instead join a right-leaning think tank like the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative pro-life group that has made him a three-year job offer.