The man who plotted Chen Guangcheng’s possible escape from China to study law at New York University is a veteran legal scholar who shares the activist’s passion for chiding Chinese officials when they fail to follow their own laws.
When Chen weighed his options inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing this week after fleeing house arrest, he told American officials that there was one adviser he could trust: Jerome Cohen, 81, an NYU law professor who is considered the godfather of Chinese legal studies in the United States.
They spoke multiple times by phone, and Chen eventually accepted Cohen’s invitation to defuse a political crisis by coming to the United States as a visiting scholar at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. It was Cohen’s idea and a typically elegant solution: By departing China as a traveling scholar rather than as an asylum-seeker, Chen would spare both governments political embarrassment.
“This has been a hectic 72 hours,” Cohen said Friday, speaking by telephone from his New York home, hoarse from a cold. “But it’s coming out well, I hope. You know, I’m an eternal optimist.”
Cohen, known for his mustache and bow tie, is a towering figure in Sino-American legal relations, with credentials befitting the political elite.
The son of a New Jersey lawyer, Cohen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, graduated at the top of his Yale Law School class and clerked for two U.S. Supreme Court justices. He taught law at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University, where he founded the United States’ first East Asia legal studies program.
“There’s probably not anybody teaching today who wasn’t either Jerry’s student or someone he impacted in some way,” said Adam Segal, a senior fellow and colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Cohen is an adjunct senior fellow.
Cohen embraced China when the nation and its legal system were not deemed worthy of serious attention. He learned Mandarin in the basement of his Berkeley home and became the first Western lawyer to practice in Beijing, according to a profile in the NYU School of Law’s magazine. By chance, Cohen shares a birthday with that of the Chinese Communist Party.
“I just knew that China was going to be very important to our future, and its law was going to be very important to our interaction,” he said.
Human rights was always on Cohen’s radar. In recent years, it has moved toward the center of his agenda.
Cohen has leveraged his diplomatic stature to help negotiate the release of several political prisoners, including Kim Dae-jung, who later was president of South Korea and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Annette Lu, who would rise to be vice president of Taiwan, according to the university profile.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert from the Brookings Institution, recalled a function he attended with Cohen, “where a former student walked up to him and said, ‘Jerry, it’s amazing, you’ve built a career teaching around Chinese law. But as you seem to point out in books, there is no Chinese law.’ In that funny way he has, he simply said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Rather than judge China by Western standards, Cohen’s usual tack is to press Chinese officials to adhere to their own laws. He succeeds, colleagues say, on the strength of his reputation.
“I think China understands that to deny access to professor Cohen would send such a negative signal around the world that they just can’t afford to do it,” said Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who has collaborated with Cohen. “He’s that important.”
Cohen, who met Chen in 2004, was drawn to the blind, self-taught lawyer partly because he shared Cohen’s knack for challenging Chinese authorities over legal abuses. Chen was incarcerated after filing suit on behalf of women who underwent forced sterilizations and forced abortions, both of which are forbidden by Chinese law.
“I’m interested in, and he’s interested in, trying to improve the Chinese legal system,” Cohen said. “And, obviously, there’s room for improvement.”
The two hadn’t spoken in several years when Cohen took a call Monday morning from Chen’s American advisers, who told him that Chen had named him as “the only person he could trust,” Cohen said.
Chen’s first plan was to relocate with his family from their walled-in farmhouse to a Chinese university so that he could begin the formal study of law. “He didn’t want to leave China. He didn’t want to give up his important work,” Cohen said.
He advised Chen that he should accept the deal only if President Obama personally made “some endorsing statement,” so that all parties would honor it.
But then, Chen changed his mind: He wanted to leave the country to ensure his family’s safety.
Cohen said he played no direct role in the second round of negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, “except Chen knew that I would invite him” to come to NYU. Cohen had assumed that journey might happen in a year or two. Now, he said, “I suppose the whole thing can be done in a month.”
As a visiting scholar, Chen would receive a salary, likely paid by the Chinese government. The visit would probably be limited to a few months, Cohen said.
“He’ll get a start toward the legal education he’s always wanted,” he said.