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Chinese dissident Chen to join conservative U.S. think tank

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng attends the book release event for "China, the Book of Living and Dying" in Taipei June 27, 2013. REUTERS/
Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng attends the book release event for "China, the Book of Living and Dying" in Taipei June 27, 2013. REUTERS/

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident and legal rights activist who accused New York University of forcing him to leave this summer because of alleged pressure from the Chinese government, will be joining The Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank.

Chen will become a distinguished fellow in human rights at Witherspoon, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey, for the next three years. He will also be affiliated with The Catholic University of America and the more liberal-leaning Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, Luis Tellez, Witherspoon's president, said in a telephone interview.

"We are taking the responsibility for the financial side and a home really where he can do his work," Tellez said, adding that Witherspoon will be responsible for the financial aspect of the arrangement among the three organizations with the help of two donors he declined to identify.

"We're not asking him to do anything specific," he said. "The main point is he's a truth teller, he tries to tell the truth as he sees it."

As Chen prepared to leave NYU this summer, some of his supporters argued over whether he was being courted or even manipulated by U.S. conservative and religious groups, which perhaps saw kinship between his work exposing forced abortions in China and their own more broadly anti-abortion views.

Witherspoon, which Tellez says is guided by Catholic principles, is best known for its articles and studies opposing abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage.

Bob Fu, who runs a Christian activist group called ChinaAid and is a friend of Chen's, said the differing ideologies of Witherspoon and the Lantos Foundation showed that Chen was not concerned by U.S. political differences.

"This shows Mr. Chen's support will not be diminished," Fu, who said he was helped with some of the negotiations for the positions, said in a telephone interview.

"It shows that the fight for freedom and human rights in China is not an issue of the right or left according to the political division in the U.S. politics and that Mr. Chen will be embraced by all the freedom-loving individuals, institutions and academics across the political spectrum," he added.

Until his escape one night in May 2012, Chen - who is blind - spent nearly seven years either in prison or under house arrest at his home in Dongshigu village in China's Shandong province. He had enraged local officials by exposing illegal forced abortions and attempting to file a class-action lawsuit for the affected families.

NYU VISITING SCHOLAR

He sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing just as Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, was flying in for bilateral talks, causing diplomatic tensions that were defused only when China agreed to let Chen accept an offer from New York University to become a visiting scholar.

Chen released a statement in June this year, accusing NYU of asking him to leave as a result of "great, unrelenting pressure" from "the Chinese Communists."

NYU, which is building a campus in Shanghai, has rejected Chen's accusation, and has been able to point to public statements that support the school's position that the placement was only ever intended to last a year.

China's foreign ministry also disputed Chen's claim. Chen has declined to discuss the allegation further.

Tellez said he expected Chen would continue to focus on his work exposing abuses of the legal system in China and would probably continue to live in New York City for the next year.

He said Chen, who is not a Christian, would not be expected to espouse or even share Witherspoon's views on social issues.

"I do not know Mr. Chen's views on same-sex marriage," Tellez said. "I never asked him. I don't intend to ask him."

Neither Chen nor the Lantos Foundation could immediately be reached for comment.

The Catholic University of America said that it would hold a news conference on Wednesday with Chen and the two other organizations to announce "a new affiliation and platform for his work and advocacy". A spokeswoman for the university declined to comment further.

The Lantos Foundation, based in Concord, New Hampshire, describes its mission as strengthening the role of human rights in American foreign policy, and awarded Chen its annual human rights prize at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in January.

The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., is the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States. The school says students and faculty, not all of whom are Catholic, have academic freedom in educational settings, but it does not usually allow outside speakers or student presentations that are "counter" to the church's teachings.

Chen, who has been blind since childhood, learned most of his legal knowledge by getting relatives to read to him.

Jerome Cohen, the NYU law professor who helped secure Chen's passage to the United States last year, said he spoke with Chen on Tuesday morning.

"I'm happy for him and wish for the best, and we'll continue to be friends," Cohen said in a telephone interview. When asked of his remark earlier this summer that Chen's stature would "diminish" if he went to Witherspoon, Cohen said: "That's been my view, but I've been wrong before. Who knows?"

(Editing by Martin Howell and Ken Wills)

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