Yesterday, I got news that Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident human-rights activist who has been the subject of much diplomatic tussling between China and the United States over the past month, would be arriving at the New York University-owned (and Robert Moses-conceived) Washington Square Village housing complex in Greenwich Village. I decided to head down, partly to see the media scrum and the spectacle that would greet Chen, a courageous soul who was permitted, in a face-saving maneuver, to attend NYU Law on a fellowship and not formally seek asylum (but how much you want to bet he won’t be returning to China, pretty much ever again?). But mainly I wanted to see if Professor Jerome A. Cohen would be present. Jerry Cohen, who 40 years ago helped persuade Henry Kissinger to send President Nixon to China, is an immensely important figure to both U.S.-China relations and specifically to Chen. During the terse negotiations over Chen, however, he has stayed largely in the background, letting the diplomats do the (official) work and of course making sure to stay un-ostentatious lest he offend Chinese political sensibilities, whose byzantine corridors he may know better than any other American. “Nobody has done more to shepherd Chen to safety over the last seven years,” reported Evan Osnos, the New Yorker‘s China correspondent, than Cohen.
A statement was emailed out by NYU quoting Cohen as merely “co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute” at NYU Law. “I am very happy to receive the news that Chen Guangcheng is on his way to the U.S.,” he said. “I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight, and to working with him on his course of study.”
Several hours later, when a white van pulled up to the complex’s driveway, soon after Chen emerged, he was followed by Cohen, clad in red bowtie, who had apparently met him at Newark’s airport. After Chen, who has recently injured his foot, was helped to the microphones, where he stood and spoke (though the microphones had been set low, on the assumption that he’d be in a wheelchair), he was joined by two figures: to his right, a translator; and to his left, Cohen, who grasped his arm firmly at the elbow, helping him stand, and whispered back-and-forth with him while the translator spoke.
Toward the end, as the translator spoke, Cohen whispered extensively to Chen, and Chen then said something about how “Nothing is impossible as long as you put your heart into it.”
As Chen said his final words in Chinese (which most of us didn’t realize were his final words until the translation, of course), Cohen, who is 81, broke out into a wide, avuncular grin and briefly released his right hand so that he could applaud. Let the studying, and the life of uncensored press conferences in open spaces that literally anybody can attend, commence.