Everyone’s favourite blind, self-taught lawyer and dramatic house arrest escapee Chen Guangcheng is staying in the news with revelations from Reuters that an iPhone and an iPad given to Chen by China Aid, an evangelical group headed by Bob Fu, contained spyware.
The claim that the devices contained spyware came from Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University, who was instrumental in securing a place at NYU for Chen, his wife and children, as well as unnamed person who is said to be familiar with the case. According to them, NYU technicians found third-party software that track the devices and back its contents up to a remote server. The technicians removed the software, returned the devices to the Chen family, and told them about what they found. Despite what he’d been told, Chen continued to have contact with Fu. In fact, their relationship appears to have deepened since then.
The two devices were gifts from China Aid to help Chen and his family adjust to life in New York, according to Fu. Fu’s wife, Heidi Cai, left the devices with Cohen’s assistant the day that the Chen family arrived in New York from China. Fu told the New York Times, “This story is just crazy” and that a technician at China Aid only activated the devices and installed Skype. Fu suggested that the software was installed after his wife dropped off the devices with Cohen’s assistant.
According to the Reuters piece, the devices Fu gave Chen were not the only ones that contained spyware. At least three other devices given to Chen by others when he arrived in New York also contained spyware.
Though Cohen did not accuse Fu outright in the original Reuters report, he said of the people who gave the compromised devices generally, “These people supposedly were out to help him, and they give him a kind of Trojan horse that would have enabled them to monitor his communications secretly”.
This latest dispute comes on the heels of another between NYU and Chen. Chen claims that NYU is forcing him out due to pressure from China, where NYU is planning on opening a satellite campus. Meanwhile NYU says that Chen’s fellowship at the school was only ever meant to last one year.
The dispute over the alleged spyware seems part of an ongoing tug of war between different groups over Chen. Chen is said to be considering two institutions after NYU, Fordham Law School, in New York, and the Witherspoon Institute, in Princeton, NJ. The latter is a socially conservative think tank that opposes same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, and abortion.
According to the SCMP, Cohen is “worried that Chen might be hurting his future by choosing to align himself with right-wing politics.”
Fu is, according to a New York Times profile last year, closely associated with conservative political groups and evangelical Christians. He was the source who last week told Reuters that Chen was considering a position with the Witherspoon Institute.
Though Chen campaigned on behalf of women who had endured forced abortions in China, he has never explicitly stated his stance on abortion in general. Neither is Chen a Christian. From the beginning of his time in the US, some were worried that conservative, Christian groups were hijacking Chen.
Chen has not yet spoken publicly about the spyware allegations.
Though many commentators have piled on Chen for being ungrateful or “biting the hand that feeds him”, it’s worth remembering that exiled dissidents and activists like Chen typically face a great deal of pressure and difficulty in adjusting to life in exile. Matt Schiavenza and Rebecca Chao point this out in the Atlantic using the example of Wei Jingsheng, a dissident who left China in 1997 and had a dispute with Columbia that is strikingly similar to the one that Chen is currently having with NYU.
Moreoever, Chen has had to deal with constant worry about the safety and well-being of the family he left behind in China.
So, whether or not we buy his allegations about NYU, let’s cut him a break. Guy’s had a rough couple of years.