NYU Alumni 


A New New Yorker

Dissident Chen Guangcheng offers some thoughts on his current home

by Eileen Reynolds / GSAS ’11

For Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident who famously made a daring escape from the village where he was being held under house arrest, Washington Square is at once a very strange and very comfortable place. Chen, a blind, self-taught civil rights lawyer, fled to the American Embassy in Beijing in April 2012, and remained there as U.S. and Chinese officials came to a diplomatic stalemate over his release. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and NYU School of Law professor Jerome A. Cohen intervened on his behalf, finally persuading the Chinese government to allow Chen to travel to the United States in May to pursue a law fellowship at NYU.

These days, when not studying constitutional law, Chen is busy adjusting to life in New York. He’s learning English with the Declaration of Independence as his guide, enjoying the Washington Square Village apartment he shares with his wife and two children, and trying out all the exotic foods the city has to offer, with Japanese seaweed salad emerging as his favorite so far.

Below Chen offers some first impressions in his own words, translated from Chinese.

On getting recognized on the street: Some people see me and clap their hands, and some people want to take photographs together. “Welcome to America,” [they say], or “You are Mr. Chen,” or “[in English] Are you Mr. Chen?”…. Anyway, I think [New Yorkers] are very friendly.

On checks and balances: I think the most interesting thing is how, in the U.S. Constitution, executive power, as represented by the president, is not very strong. Congress holds much of the power.… In the end, even the president is subject to a court’s ruling. This is a very good social mechanism.

What Americans should understand about China: When [Americans] discuss the problems of China, it is usually just about the urban conditions, not the rural, village populations, which occupy about 80 to 90 percent [of the country]. I don’t think people understand remotely enough of rural, village society and conditions.

What the Chinese should understand about America: Chinese people have a dire lack of understanding about America, because there is no information.… They might know America was attacked by airplanes on 9/11, but they do not know how people in the World Trade Center helped those with disabilities escape to safety, or how, after the [2003] blackout, New York shop owners provided free food to those stranded in the streets. These are things that [the average Chinese person] might not know.