Episode 5: Guangcheng’s Year of Living Famously | Crooked Media
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February 03, 2024
Dissident At The Doorstep
Episode 5: Guangcheng’s Year of Living Famously

In This Episode

Following a tense negotiation between the US and China, Guangcheng arrives in the United States. He is greeted with a hero’s welcome. He gives speeches. He wins awards. And he tries to adjust to life in New York, hosted by NYU. But quickly cracks start to emerge beneath the glamorous facade.




Yangyang Cheng: Without knowing the context. An onlooker might have thought on that warm spring day in 2012, that New York University was welcoming a foreign dignitary or Hollywood star. A white van pulls up in front of a university building. Chen Guangcheng steps out. 


[news clip]: A moment of jubilation and liberation for the blind, human rights activist Chen Guangcheng [applause] and a New York moment too with flashbulbs and well-wishers and their whole hearted support. 


Yangyang Cheng: Less than a week ago, Guangcheng was still at a hospital in Beijing, getting treatment for the bones he broke in his foot while escaping house arrest from his hospital room surrounded by Chinese police. He dialed into a congressional hearing and expressed his wishes to come to the U.S.. Now still on crutches, he’s set foot on American soil. It takes him a moment to steady himself. A man breaks out of the crowd and rushes for to shake Guangcheng’s hand. It’s Republican Congressman Chris Smith who convened the hearing. Guangcheng spoke at by phone. Professor Jerry Cohen, who helped make the arrangements for Guangcheng to come to NYU, is there, too, while Guangcheng’s wife Weijing, and Congressman Smith look on from the side. It’s Jerry who stands beside Guangcheng in front of cameras and microphones. 


[clip of translator]: I will say a few simple words to everyone here— [ambient chatter]


Yangyang Cheng: He looks at him admiringly as Guangcheng addresses the crowd through an interpreter. 


[clip of translator]: After much turbulence, I have come out of Shandong. This is thanks to, the assistance of many friends. 


Yangyang Cheng: Watching the scene reminds me of my own arrival to the United States in 2009. A Chinese schoolmate picked me up at the airport and drove me down to the University of Chicago campus. My flight was delayed, and O’Hare felt like a maze. It took me a good while to find my schoolmate on the way to Hyde Park. He tried to comfort me by saying that it’s not possible to get lost in Chicago. You just need to remember that the lake is to the east. I looked out the car window and tried to visualize a neatly aligned grid, but all I saw was the darkness of night. I was overwhelmed. And my arrival was normal and uneventful. Guangcheng’s was quite the opposite. 


[news clip]: And it is a great honor and blessing that we have him now in the United States. /No shortage of support here in New York. But Chen Guangcheng says he needs a rest and he’s guaranteed a quieter life. Even in this boisterous city. 


Yangyang Cheng: If one looks at the media coverage from this day the tone is celebratory as if the story has reached its happy conclusion. Guangcheng is on free soil now. He’s welcomed. He is safe. He will live life as he wishes. But the reality is not a fairy tale. Just one year later, everything will fracture. The truth is, if you look closely beneath the pomp and fanfare, the cracks are already there. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] The process of how I came to the US was in itself a process for me of getting to know the U.S.. 


Yangyang Cheng: I’m Yangtang Cheng. 


Alison Klayman: And I’m Alison Klayman, and this is episode five of Dissident at the Doorstep. 


Jerry Cohen: NYU treated him fabulously. They spent over $400,000 that first year to take care of the Chens. 


Alison Klayman: Jerry Cohen told us that when Guangcheng arrived in New York, the university set his family up with everything they needed to start their lives over in the US. 


Jerry Cohen: And they had its own private security guard. You know, it gave him a faculty apartment. 


Alison Klayman: A rent free three bedroom right in Greenwich Village. Early on, Jerry was Guangcheng’s closest adviser. The two of them talked pretty much every day. 


Jerry Cohen: Joan got a little annoyed because he. He’d wake us up every morning at 7:00 and say, this is what happened last night, and this is what I heard. And what am I going to do today? And finally, I said, let’s talk a little later in the morning. No I didn’t. 7:00 I’m not at my best. When he came here, he was a rock star. God, we’d go for a walk in the park here, and everybody in New York knew him. 


Alison Klayman: His celebrity extended beyond the NYU neighborhood. GQ magazine named him the 2012 rebel of the year. In the photo, he’s wearing his signature sunglasses and a sleek, dark outfit. A long red scarf around his neck billows in the wind. Anderson Cooper interviewed him for CNN. 


[clip of Anderson Cooper]: You say it’s natural to want to to speak out against evil, but many people remain silent. Why do you think you must be very courageous?


Yangyang Cheng: And radio personalities like Brian Lehrer invited Guangcheng to their shows to talk about his new life in New York. 


[clip of Brian Lehrer]: So have you discovered any new foods in New York and new music in New York, or new activities. 


[clip of translator]: I have discovered some new things. For example, Indian restaurants, I’ve discovered, mango lassi, which I really enjoy. 


[clip of Brian Lehrer]: Mango lassi is very New York. 


Alison Klayman: In all these interviews. Of course, reporters wanted to hear about his escape. But he also remembers American journalists asking him big questions about one issue in particular. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] They were very willing to listen to my views on current issues like democracy and human rights. It’s like they had been in a room full of flowers for so long they stopped noticing the fragrance. They thought there were many problems with democracy. They kept asking me, why do you think democracy is so good when we think it’s so bad? 


Alison Klayman: It’s such a great Chinese expression. Jiǔjū huā shì bù jué xiāngle. The idea that when you’re so used to something, you may stop appreciating it or even just noticing its basic attributes. The saying is paired with a second line. If you stay in a room with pickled fish for too long, you stop noticing the stench. I think Guangcheng was picking up on what he represented as a celebrity dissident to the people who were admiring him in that moment. In their minds, he came from somewhere where he’d been fighting so hard for what we Americans take for granted. And now that he’s here enjoying what we have. Maybe he can help us notice the flowers again. [music plays] Besides interviews and academic lectures, Guangcheng also found himself on the human rights award circuit. He attended galas like the one where Colin and I first met him in person. At another event, Richard Gere presented him with a human rights prize that had previously been given to the Dalai Lama. 


[clip of Richard Gere]: Long live the trouble makers. [applause] Long live the troublemakers. Long live the troublemakers.


Alison Klayman: And Christian Bale, who less than a year earlier had brought a CNN camera crew to Guangcheng’s village, only to be punched by a plainclothes guard. Finally got to meet Guangcheng face to face at the ceremony for Human Rights First’s Human Rights Award. Attendees sit in the darkened room at round banquet tables with lit candle centerpieces. On the stage in front of them is Christian. 


[clip of Christian Bale]: He represents the people of China, the people that I met. 


Alison Klayman: The bright blue backdrop behind him has the organization’s logo and tagline repeated over and over. Human rights, first American ideals, universal values. 


[clip of Christian Bale]: He slipped by these thugs. He climbed walls. He navigated fields, ditches, woods, and journeyed hundreds of miles to make it to the US embassy, all while keeping his shades on. 


Yangyang Cheng: Christian looks over at Guangcheng off stage as he says this next part. 


[clip of Christian Bale]: I may be naive, but I hope the one day that I can meet Guangcheng and his family back in their home in China, and we can walk the streets. And China’s leaders will recognize what a national treasure they have in this man and how proud they should be of him. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng is helped on to the stage to receive the award. He feels around to embrace the actor and throws one arm around him. Christian reciprocates, but it’s a little fumbling and awkward until the two eventually lock in a deep, long embrace. Guangcheng buries his head into Christian’s right shoulder and begins sobbing. Christian puts his hand on Guangcheng’s head. Beyond the spotlight at NYU, the atmosphere was less triumphant. Mattie Bekink was one of the people NYU engaged to help support Guangcheng when he arrived. She was consulting for them already because NYU was planning on opening a Shanghai campus. She’d lived in China for years and spoke fluent Mandarin. Mattie was also connected to people who played an important role in getting Guangcheng to the U.S.. She knew Jerry Cohen and counted Harold Koh as a mentor. She’d interned at the State Department, and Chelsea Clinton was a close friend at Stanford. 


Mattie Bekink: I was really felt as though I was going to meet up and work with and support a kind of living legend, to some extent a hero. 


Alison Klayman: Tell me about arriving and and meeting Guangcheng and first impressions. 


Mattie Bekink: So I met him and his wife and his children. And it was quite warm and quite personable. And, you know, he was still kind of recovering from some of his injuries at that time, and still seeking treatment. And, you know, my immediate concern was also just thinking, wow, this is a whole family that’s landed and been so upended, and I need to do everything I can to support not just him, but them. 


Alison Klayman: Matti felt like there was a lot to do. 


Mattie Bekink: So in the summer, the children, were, we found a Mandarin language camp to give the children an activity and help getting them acclimatized. But then I also designed a program where we hired graduate students to kind of offer what we kind of called life lessons, and it was kind of how to go to the grocery store and how to open a bank account and like really fundamental things because it was just not something that obviously either Guangcheng or Weijing had ever had to deal with in their life. And, and English, of course. And I lined up this series of classes and activities. A lot of them were were more far Weijing. Chen Guangcheng’s wife, because she was the one at the end of the day who was kind of lifting the the domestic or household burden. 


Alison Klayman: I wondered how Weijing felt as she went through the classes and activities Mattie and company had arranged for her. We wanted to interview her for the series, but she declined through Guangcheng. 


Mattie Bekink: So when I first got there, they were ordering takeout every night. And of course, you know, NYU was paying for everything. And it wasn’t just, you know, a question of expense, but it was also just like long term and health wise, you should probably learn to cook. So I think we even lined up cooking classes at some point. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng doesn’t entirely agree with this version of events. He told us they weren’t ordering takeout every night, that it was often lunch, and he wasn’t the one doing the ordering. When Mattie attempted to connect Guangcheng with a local NGO that works with blind people. They discussed using a white cane. 


Mattie Bekink: And that was one that at first he was very reticent, and was not interested. And may have been a little bit insulted, almost, but it was not coming from a place of telling him how to live. It’s just if you want to live an independent life in the, in the US, like these are the types of resources that, you know, other blind individuals draw upon, to enable independence. 


Alison Klayman: Mattie and her colleagues were looking to the future and imagining how Guangcheng would fare independently in the US without the resources of NYU behind him. But Guangcheng says he used a white cane before, and that he had more important things he wanted to do with his busy schedule, including recovering from a foot injury and everything else he’d been through during many years of abusive incarceration. I often wonder if in this moment, he could have used more time and support to process the past. Maybe it was too soon to be preparing for what’s next. Mattie began noticing that her interactions with Guangcheng came with a fair amount of friction. 


Mattie Bekink: One of the things that I came to see in Guangcheng, which I think might be true, a lot of Chinese human rights activists overall, is he had a really strong distrust of authority, any authority. And so it was perhaps inevitable, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I became the authority. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng was also spending time in the classroom. Jerry had tapped NYU law professor Frank Upham, who specialized in East Asia Law and Society, to give Guangcheng lessons on constitutional law and the American legal system. 


Frank Upham: I know nothing about Con Law, but that’s what I was teaching him, so I had to learn it literally. 


Alison Klayman: Frank says he was not thrilled about giving up his summer, but he felt like he owed it to Jerry, so he agreed. When Colin got his PhD from Columbia, Frank was a reader on his dissertation committee. So Colin interviewed Frank and he asked him what Guangcheng was like in the classroom. First semester Colin was also an affiliated scholar at the U.S. Asia Law Institute, where Frank and Jerry both worked. 


Colin Jones: How was he as a student? 


Frank Upham: I don’t remember him being particularly responsive or questioning. There were no tests, of course, and so I don’t think there was any way for me to evaluate. 


Colin Jones: Was he interested in the subject? 


Frank Upham: Well, he sat there for hours after hours and and there was some discussion going. I mean, I had a couple students there and they spoke Chinese. That’s why they were there. So I don’t mean that he just sat there and daydreamed. I think there was exchange. He was not a sophisticated person. He was incredibly idealistic and determined and courageous person. But he’s not a pleasant human being. He was disrespectful. Impatient. Doesn’t capture it. Dismissive of the people around him. Including his wife and people who were just there to help him. I don’t remember any. He could have done this, and I don’t remember. I don’t remember him ever thanking anybody. He certainly never thanked me that I remember. 


Alison Klayman: Frank’s point about a lack of gratitude was one thing, but he says that it was the time he spent with Guangcheng outside of the classroom with his family that really concerned him. 


Frank Upham: I would be in their apartment at times, and it wasn’t a pleasant scene. 


Colin Jones: Can you say more about that? 


Frank Upham: He would. He would strike out. Wave his arms around and he didn’t care if he hit people. And I don’t know whether he was trying to hit people or, you know, he’s blind. So, and, and he would do it too often to be dismissed as. Not a problem. It was a problem. 


Alison Klayman: We asked Mattie if she ever noticed this thing Frank described. She said Guangcheng would often speak effusively and would be very animated. She didn’t think he was doing it out of malice, but she also got the sense that he wasn’t thinking a lot about other people’s comfort. 


Yangyang Cheng: We also asked Guangcheng about it. He called it nonsense. There were a number of ethnic Chinese students and research assistants who are very close to Guangcheng and his family at the time. Some of them sat in classes with Guangcheng and helped translate. They also helped Weijing with laundry and groceries. We reached out to a couple of them, but they would not speak to us on the record. 


Alison Klayman: In truth, Guangcheng left a bad impression on other folks too. Not just other people at NYU. Also, people from the State Department who had a part in handling Guangcheng’s arrival at the embassy and deal to come to America. Several people declined to do a recorded interview with us because they basically said Guangcheng was an asshole. Jerry, who was not involved in Guangcheng’s day to day support the same way Mattie and Frank were, was surprised. 


Jerry Cohen: What surprised me was none of the people in my group and there were very nice group of people. None of them liked Guangcheng. They disliked him. I noticed. I don’t know why, but I think he gave them the impression that they were all there to serve him, and it wasn’t collegial. 


Alison Klayman: What strikes me is how personal it still feels for everyone we talked to, including Frank giving up their summers, getting him an apartment in the village, letting his family order takeout on NYU’s tab. I think the NYU folks wanted Guangcheng to appreciate these gestures, to show them how grateful he was for all they had done. Looking back, Frank struck a philosophical note when thinking about how he saw Guangcheng. 


Frank Upham: I think to change unfair social structures, you have to break stuff, and breaking stuff harms innocent people. Chen Guangcheng was out to change stuff to break stuff. And I don’t think if he had been a normal person, he could have done that. 


Alison Klayman: Ali and Colin conducted interviews with Frank and Mattie. Listening to the tapes was not easy for me, to put it mildly. For someone like Guangcheng, who had always tried to chart his own course in defiance of social expectations, I can picture how disempowering it must have been to land in a new country with a young family, not knowing the language and relying entirely on other people’s goodwill to navigate even the basic necessities of life. This is a man who had endured years of torture and uprooted his entire life, as well as that of his immediate families, effectively overnight. This is not to excuse his poor attitude or behavior, but it will be unrealistic to expect him to behave pleasantly and well-adjusted. But that’s not the only reason I feel so uncomfortable listening to these interviews. Each time I hear the audio or even read the transcripts. My mind shuts down. It’s like my subconscious is trying to protect me from further harm. I find myself feeling offended on behalf of Guangcheng as a fellow Chinese person by the patronizing tone. That a group of white people knew what’s best for a Chinese family, that Guangcheng was not attentive enough to their instructions, or grateful enough for their guidance. The tapes grate on a part of me that’s already bruised and raw. I’m reminded of the many times I’ve been on the receiving end of such white entitlement a savior complex. But have you considered? I want to say maybe I’m not you and do not want to be you. I simply want to be. Then I feel bad for projecting my own experiences onto people I do not know for being so harsh and judgmental. These are well-meaning individuals facing an impossibly difficult situation and trying their best to navigate. 


Alison Klayman: There were clearly a lot of early challenges in Guangcheng’s relationship with the university. A lack of trust on one side and a feeling of lack of gratitude on the other. But Mattie and Jerry began to suspect that there were other people in Guangcheng’s orbit, exacerbating the situation. Take, for example, Guangcheng’s book deal. Jerry himself helped with the negotiations. 


Jerry Cohen: I worked hard to get that book published. I sat there for days, negotiating with the various publishers to see how much of an advance we could get, so all we could get was, I think, 540,000 out of it. I was disappointed I was going for a million. 


Alison Klayman: The book deal was important to the NYU folks. Mattie says it was part of their strategy for helping Guangcheng build a nest egg for his life in America. 


Mattie Bekink: The most powerful tool you have right now is your story, your escape story. And so early on, we’d said, you need to not tell that to anybody because, you know, you need to still try and build a life yourself in this country. And we did, you know, work very hard to negotiate a book deal. We got an excellent publisher. You know, the terms that we got were very favorable. You know, on par with very serious, you know, famous political figures in the US. But he’d been hearing voices from other sources saying that he should get $2 million in advance, which is like, nobody gets that. And so then he, you know, he would sort of distrust the fact that I and some of the other people at NYU who’d been working to negotiate it were saying, well, you know, you didn’t do enough for me. I could have done so much better. 


Alison Klayman: I think what Mattie’s saying here is that on his own, Guangcheng would have been happy with a half million dollar advance on his book, and the only reason he wasn’t is because people on the other side were whispering in his ear. And the people on the other side were Republicans. That’s after the break. 


Yangyang Cheng: As we heard in the last episode, Danny Russel who served in the National Security Council in Obama administration, called Bob Fu a selfish, manipulative zealot for the role he played in Guangcheng’s final days in China. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, ran a glowing profile of Bob shortly after Guangcheng arrived in the U.S., titled The Pastor of China’s Underground Railroad. It praised Bob’s work in helping those persecuted escape China. Remember when Guangcheng was under house arrest, Bob’s organization, ChinaAid, subtitled and posted online the video Guangcheng and Weijing filmed in secret. In the last episode, Bob was the one who translated when Guangcheng spoke at a congressional hearing by phone from a hospital in Beijing. The two men had yet to meet in person, but Bob was already a major figure in Guangcheng’s life. About a week before Guangcheng’s arrival in the US, Bob and Jerry met in person for the first time. 


Jerry Cohen: I remember we had lunch together. Maybe here. We had a nice walk. I had a sense he was Republican tinted and I wasn’t sure who he was. I had never met him. But then once Guangcheng came, then there was a struggle for access. Bob was always trying to get through, to try and, I was happy to let him see him, but I wanted to know what was going on because I didn’t want to find out Chen had been spirited away by the Republican Party or what was going to happen. 


Yangyang Cheng: Bob told us that was not his plan. 


Bob Fu: I was not having any, like, Republican talk or, you know, what the the Democrat talk or any partisan thing at all. Zero. 


Yangyang Cheng: He said he was happy for Guangcheng to have a mentor like Jerry. 


Bob Fu: I trusted him. His wisdom, of course, his seniority in Chinese. That’s very important, right? 


Yangyang Cheng: But he also felt Jerry was acting like a gatekeeper. According to Bob, it started the day Guangcheng landed in New York. Guangcheng was rushed away from the airport without being able to see his supporters, who were waiting for him at the arrivals hall, a group that included pro-life activists and Congressman Chris Smith. 


Bob Fu: There is a lot of control. I mean, a lot.  


Alison Klayman: At the most basic level. The conflict between Bob and Jerry is political. Bob is aligned with Republicans. Jerry is aligned with Democrats. But I wouldn’t say it’s about one side wanting Guangcheng to endorse Republicans and the other side trying to get him to endorse Democrats. Instead. It’s more like one side wanted to help him take an active role in politics, and the other side thought he needed to be protected from getting lost or used in a culture war. They thought he didn’t and maybe couldn’t understand. 


Jerry Cohen: My view was you’ve just got here. You know nothing about America. Give it one year. Don’t get involved with either party. Just give yourself a year to get oriented and learn some English. Learn about what’s going on. And he accepted that in principle. Except Washington kept coming at him. 


Alison Klayman: That’s not how Bob remembers it. He says Guangcheng never signed off on Jerry’s plan for him. 


Bob Fu: So it seems every, you know, other people knows best interest for him to make a decision for him. And he was not in agreement. He didn’t like it. He felt like, I mean, that’s he expressed his feelings that he felt that he’s, controlled, almost like lost freedom again in the US soil. I mean, has they consider his own feeling right? 


Yangyang Cheng: All these tensions about access have been simmering during Guangcheng’s first weeks in New York. And then Republican members of Congress invited Guangcheng to testify at the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about human rights in China. 


Jerry Cohen: I remember some guy from Chris Smith’s subcommittee called him. Why aren’t you letting him come to Washington? 


Yangyang Cheng: It was July 2012, right in the middle of a presidential campaign. Jerry was suspicious about their intentions and timing. There was also a US-China bilateral dialogue on human rights happening around the same time Obama’s State Department was leading the exchange. Republicans were critical of it, which was why they scheduled their own hearing. 


Jerry Cohen: The Republicans wanted Chun to come to Washington and to say how terrible he was treated by and how they bungled things. And, the Obama administration in Beijing over his case. And I said, look, let him come to Washington in January. And he said, that’s too late. I said, too late for what was obvious, too late for the election. They wanted to exploit him. 


Alison Klayman: We contacted Congressman Smith’s office multiple times with an interview request, but they stopped getting back to us. 


Yangyang Cheng: During my first few years in the U.S., in an effort to familiarize myself with the new country, I watched the political talk shows religiously every Sunday morning. There I learned the venerated expression that partisan divisions stop at the water’s edge, dating to the Cold War. It’s a call for political unity in the face of foreign hostility, but it has always been more of an aspiration than reality on the same programs where the phrase is uttered. I would also hear politicians on both sides of the aisle disparage the other party’s foreign policy failings in order to score domestic points. Jerry understandably did not want Guangcheng to become an unwitting actor in someone else’s agenda. But Guangcheng’s work in China and the circumstances of his arrival in the US had already become partisan ammunition. The Obama administration touted their role in his rescue. Republican opponents criticized hurdles in the process. The Christian Right wanted to claim Guangcheng as a pro-life crusader. Skipping a congressional testimony would not shield him from the intensifying whirlwinds months before an election. Guangcheng did agree to testify. But as the hearing approached and the committee was trying to confirm his appearance. They couldn’t get a hold of him. Bob Fu says he got an urgent phone call from a committee staffer. 


Bob Fu: He called me. He has said, Bob, can you help us find Guangcheng, he is missing. We could not locate him. We cannot get ahold of him. Nowhere can be found. And we already, you know, made the hearing public. 


Yangyang Cheng: Bob says he got a hold of Weijing later, and she told him what had happened. 


Richard Yeh: Somebody you know, at NYU decide to take a radical action by driving Guangcheng to a very  seclusive, outside New York, maybe Long Island or somewhere, and, no cell phone, signal area and give him a partisan lesson. Said if you do this, you will be used by the Republicans. You are endangered. They will manipulate you. They will hurt you. Everybody’s bad guys. 


Yangyang Cheng: The mysterious location where Guangcheng was secreted off to in advance of the hearing. George Soros’ house in the Hamptons. If there is one thing the Chinese government and the American right agree on is that George Soros’ is the villainous mastermind plotting world domination. 


Alison Klayman: We should note that Soros Fund Management is an investor in Crooked Media. Bob says he could understand wanting to keep Guangcheng out of partisan politics. 


Bob Fu: But to control his freedom make him suffer mentally. 


Alison Klayman: He says Weijing told him Guangcheng appeared particularly tormented after that trip to Soros’ house. 


Bob Fu: I mean, she described Guangcheng [speaks Mandarin] pale faced, staring on the ceiling, wet with sweat, agonizing like he was under tremendous pressure. But he was forced to quit and basically. Yeah. No show.


Alison Klayman: We asked Jerry what he thought about Bob’s accusation that the Hamptons outing was a way to force Guangcheng to cancel the DC testimony. 


Jerry Cohen: Nonsense. It’s the first time I heard there was a conflict, that Hamptons trip was cause George Soros invited us. George gave us a contribution to help with the expenses for Chen. So we were there, and we would have gotten there whatever was going on. And, Guangcheng, was thrilled. And it was an unusual, experience. In fact, he included my son Ethan tried to get him to play tennis. 


Alison Klayman: During our interviews with Guangcheng, he also brought up this whole saga of how he missed the opportunity to testify in DC. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] They invited me to this hearing to talk about the human rights situation in China. Once I accepted the invitation, they were terrified. Jerry Cohen also said to me, if you go, the Chinese government will not come. That was their attitude. They put the pressure on me to rescind my decision. They said either you cancel it or you go by yourself. Either way, we’re not going to go with you. You figure it out. 


Alison Klayman: We emailed Jerry for a response. He said he found Guangcheng statement puzzling and confused. Jerry could not recall any human rights dialogue that July. 


Yangyang Cheng: Guangcheng also believed the Obama administration was limiting press access to him. I do not understand how the Obama administration could control who Guangcheng speaks to. Guangcheng claimed the white House was doing so through NYU. He pointed to a PR person NYU had hired to help him. Matt Dorf. He came from a firm that worked on liberal causes at work to help elect President Obama. Matt was involved in Guangcheng’s stay at NYU from the very beginning, but I still cannot figure out why the Obama administration would even be concerned with Guangcheng on schedule at NYU, let alone meddle with it. So I asked him. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] Because it was an election year, and I had done work on forced sterilization and abortion. This was a very, very hot topic in the U.S. at the time. They really, really did not want me to talk about this issue and influence the election. And that was the real reason. 


Alison Klayman: We spoke with Matt Dorf, the PR person hired by NYU, about Guangcheng’s claim. Matt said he did not recall any interference or control from the Obama administration. He told us he passed along every press request to Guangcheng for him to decide what he wanted to do. There were a lot in the beginning, but interest faded as time went on. He pointed out that Guangcheng was on the front page of The New York Times the week he arrived in the US the next week. He wasn’t. 


Yangyang Cheng: After the break, Mr. Chen goes to Washington. 


Alison Klayman: Like many of these stories, it’s hard to get to the bottom of what happened on that trip to the Hamptons. Mattie and Jerry and others we spoke to from NYU insisted they did not want to control Guangcheng, but in practice, it looked like they were trying to control him. It does seem like NYU understood how upset Guangcheng was at this point, because just a week after the human rights bilateral dialogue, they helped facilitate a trip for him to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and talk about his human rights work. We reached out to NYU Public Relations for comment, but they did not respond. We know that Mattie came along as well as at least one research assistant from NYU and publicist Matt Dorf. The highlight of this trip was a bipartisan photo op and press conference with then Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. 


[clip of John Boehner]: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. It’s truly an honor and privilege to welcome Mr. Chen to the United States Capitol. And like many Americans, I have followed his remarkable journey. Let me also personally thank you, Mr. Chen and his family, for the sacrifices they’ve made in the cause for human rights, religious freedom, and the rights of the unborn. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng then comes up to the podium and delivers remarks while Mattie translates over one shoulder is Congressman Smith. The other, Speaker Boehner, both stands so close it almost looks like they might be touching him. 


Mattie Bekink: [translating] I am very happy to have the opportunity, and I am pleased and would welcome the opportunity to exchange in dialogue with all people who support human rights, and pay attention to these issues. Thank you very much. 


Alison Klayman: As he finishes, Guangcheng breaks into a big smile. Congressman Smith says something and pats him on the back. It’s so tight around the podium that Guangcheng can only nuzzle in between Smith and Boehner, so they’re squeezed together, shoulder to shoulder as Pelosi steps up to the mic. 


[clip of Nancy Pelosi]: I don’t often say this, Mr. Speaker. But I do wish to associate myself with your remarks because I thought [laughs] because I, I think that you said very well all that we, our country stands for and our relationships with other countries and in relationship to—


Alison Klayman: Pelosi paying Boehner a compliment plays like such a laugh line. But actually, this moment really underscores how both Democrats and Republicans are clamoring to associate publicly with Guangcheng. Pelosi doesn’t comment on Boehner’s reference to the rights of the unborn. She seems happy to be part of this bipartisan moment. 


Yangyang Cheng: Up at the podium with Boehner and Pelosi. Gang is being celebrated for his activism in China. But the human rights condition in China, or even Guangcheng himself, is only a backdrop to the real hero in this story. The righteousness of the United States. The praises heaped on Guangcheng are ultimately self-congratulatory. 


Alison Klayman: After the press conference, Guangcheng held some private meetings with pro-life lawmakers. Mattie was there with him as his interpreter. She said she usually didn’t get invited to sit in on these kinds of meetings. 


Mattie Bekink: What struck me at the time was that we were just having different conversations, like I was literally translating the words, but both sides were just hearing what they wanted to hear. Where candidly, on the one side, it was precious babies, and the other side it was, you know, fighting against state coercion. And those were not the same thing. And it was just kind of mind blowing on a personal level, because I wanted to sort of stop them both. And in English say, do you not realize that you’re like, he’s not saying what you think. Like, do not hear the words out of my mouth. And I would want to turn to Guangcheng and say, in Chinese, like, this is not what he’s not talking about. What you’re talking about. Like he’s not concerned about the, you know, oppressive power of the Chinese state, per se, except as it relates to the unborn. 


Alison Klayman: I don’t know exactly what was said at these meetings, but Mattie is pointing to something important when it comes to the politics of abortion in the U.S.. Guangcheng’s work doesn’t map neatly on one side of the debate. Fighting government sponsored forced abortions and sterilizations could be seen as a great example for pro-choice advocates about how government control and the arena of reproductive health is a bad thing. But that’s not what was happening. Conservative politicians felt a stronger affinity with Guangcheng on this issue and were actively courting him. 


Mattie Bekink: We all can be capable of kind of hearing what we want to hear, even if we think we’re having a conversation, we might not be. 


Alison Klayman: Mattie thought what was happening might have been lost on Guangcheng, but it seems more likely to me that he just wasn’t bothered by their pro-life stance. 


Yangyang Cheng: As the evening approached, Guangcheng, Mattie and a couple of others headed to Union Station to take the train back to New York. The day seemed like a big success. Then a standoff happened at the train station. Guangcheng and Mattie gave completely different accounts of this episode. The common denominator is distrust. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] Some journalist friends who have been paying attention to me for a very long time. They were in D.C., so we planned to meet them after the visit to Capitol Hill. The schedule allowed it. Our train was at seven and the congressional business concluded shortly after four. So I said we to get together, have dinner and head to the train station after six. Oh that’s perfect. Then she said to me, well, there’s so many buildings around the Capitol, your friends will have a hard time finding you. So let’s go to the train station. You just stand at the entrance of the train station. Tell your friends to go there, and then you can meet up because it’s easier to find. So I believe her. I chose to believe her. We got to the entrance of the train station, and I said, we’re at the entrance. Let’s wait here. And then she said, oh, let’s wait inside. We can find a place to sit and wait. We don’t have to stand by the entrance, you know. But I had already told my friends I would be at the entrance if I went inside. How can my friends find me? Actually, I had already sensed something was wrong, but I wanted to see what kind of tricks they could play.


Alison Klayman: Mattie tells this story totally differently. 


Mattie Bekink: It became apparent that it looked as though Guangcheng had made a plan to go protest outside the Chinese embassy in D.C. which of course would have been had to involve losing me somehow in Union Station, and that he’d arranged with somebody to be picked up and taken there. And so we ended up having this kind of showdown in Union Station where I said, Guangcheng, like, you can’t, you can’t do this like you can’t leave me. You can’t do this. You know, I’m also not going to be fast chasing you. I’m very pregnant. But, you know, this is. We have to catch our train. 


Alison Klayman: To Guangcheng. This was all a sneaky attempt to control him and unreasonable. All he wanted to do was meet friends for dinner who were already at a restaurant holding a table for him. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] It’s just a dinner with my friends. What’s the big deal? Why do you have to be so scared? Don’t be like this. We are all tired after a long day. The world doesn’t revolve around you. Well. I don’t need you to revolve around me. You could have gone back first. And she said it’s a misunderstanding. What misunderstanding is that? It’s a premeditated plot. It’s outrageous. To be honest, I was helping them save face. If I had revealed what they did at the time, they would have been very embarrassed. Under those circumstances, they would have been very, very embarrassed. They were violating the laws of the United States, illegally restricting my freedom. 


Alison Klayman: It’s easy for me to imagine how I would feel being pregnant and on a work trip on a hot August day in DC. I’d also probably want to sit in the AC and not miss my scheduled train to get home. But when Mattie was telling this story, she said something that hinted at another motivation behind her actions. 


Mattie Bekink: Part of my role was, yes, supporting him, but also kind of protecting US-China relations in some sense. You know, like the State Department wanted to make sure we didn’t have another big incident because of this one individual. And I thought maybe that sounds too grandiose protecting US-China relations, but it would have been very bad. I think overall for the bilateral relationship, had he been allowed, had he shown up outside the embassy to protest? 


Alison Klayman: Was it something actually spoken? When you say you were sort of asked for him not to do that? Was that was someone actually, you know, communicating? 


Mattie Bekink: Well, it was more that I, I actually to be fair, it was more that I took it upon myself like nobody said, like, don’t let him go protest. But I realized that was happening. And I just thought, like, I need to, you know, if part of my role is to try and because part of the reason I was brought over to is because the State Department knows me and, you know, trusted me to kind of exercise good judgment about how to help him navigate in the US. And good judgment is not protesting outside the Chinese embassy within two months of arrival. Basically. 


Alison Klayman: Guangcheng is someone who risked his life on countless occasions to speak out against the Chinese state. If Mattie felt her role was to protect bilateral relations, I think it’s obvious Guangcheng was not going to be on the same page. Besides, Guangcheng says he was just planning to go to dinner with friends. 


Yangyang Cheng: In the end, Mattie won and they rode home together. 


Mattie Bekink: He was very upset with me and the train ride back to New York, and getting on the train was not our happiest time, I will say. But you know, we survived our relationship. Recovered. He was disappointed, but he got over it. 


Yangyang Cheng: When Guangcheng spoke to us. It did not seem like he got over it. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] I was very angry about this, but I didn’t mention that when I got back, I thought NYU must have known. Because Mattie certainly had to report it when we got back. I thought after she reported it, the school would come to me to talk about it. But I waited and waited and months passed, and no one had mentioned this. Not even Jerry. Not a word. Once I realized this, I was very upset. It’s not right. So I went to Jerry. By then, Mattie had left the position. She left over two months ago. So Jerry told me. Well, she’s already gone. What’s there to do? Why didn’t you call me from the train station at the time? So you see, the waters are deep here. If you’re not careful, you can slip and drown. It’s very easy to ruin a reputation. Very easy. Really. Maybe even worse than say Musk touching someone’s thigh. 


Yangyang Cheng: This seems to be a reference to reports in 2022 that Elon Musk had allegedly exposed himself to, and touched the leg of a flight attendant on Space X’s corporate jet. Musk denied the claim and suggested that the accusation was politically motivated. These days, Guangcheng spends a lot of time reading about Elon’s companies and listening to his speeches. My mother in China is also a big fan of Elon’s. 


Richard Yeh: [voice over] So when I see what’s happening now, whether it’s with Mr. Trump or Mr. Musk, whether it’s about vaccines, censorship and so on, I realize that freedom of speech in the United States is not nearly as free as people think it is. It is really bound up by many strings, and these strings are waiting for you and me to cut them off. 


Yangyang Cheng: Next time on Dissident at the Doorstep. Cutting off those strings. 


Alison Klayman: Dissident at the Doorstep is an original podcast from Crooked Media. Our hosts are Colin Jones, Yangyang Cheng and me Alison Klayman. From Crooked Media. Our executive producers are Tommy Vietor, Sarah Geismer and Katie Long, with special thanks to Mary Knauf and Alison Falzetta. Our senior producer is Maria Byrne and Meg Cramer. Maura Walz is our story editor. Our producer is Wudan Yan. Our associate producers are Boen Wang and Sydney Rapp. Translation by Valerie C, with additional translation by Yangyang Cheng and Richard Yeh. Voiceovers by Richard Yeh. Our fact checker is Tamika Adams. Sound design and mixing by Hannis Brown original score by Ilan Isakov and our podcast Art is by John Lee.