RAY SUAREZ: For more on the latest developments surrounding the activist and the big power battle of wills, we talk to Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University who’s been working with Chen Guangcheng since 2003.
Professor, with all that your friend has been through in the last several days, what was your reaction on the statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry?
JEROME COHEN, professor, New York University: I was ecstatic.
I woke up feeling wonderful when I saw that early this morning. It comes out of the blue. It’s perfectly timed. It’s a very good statement. It’s succinct. It doesn’t attack the United States. It doesn’t attack Chen. It just says we will treat him like every other citizen.
And that’s what he has wanted. He wanted an assurance that if released from the American Embassy that he would be protected like other Chinese citizens, not those who were discriminated against.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as someone with a personal connection to what has become a worldwide story, do you think that this allows the two powers involved to disengaging gracefully, let’s say?
JEROME COHEN: Yes, they can get on with the many other difficult problems that they have to contend with.
Chen can apply. I hope his application for a visa will be approved. And I hope he will have a chance for study, repose, exchange of ideas, and it will be a stimulating, useful experience for him.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you host visiting scholars from other places in China and other places in Asia. Are you confident given what the Foreign Ministry has said that they intend to allow him to leave?
JEROME COHEN: I think that is what we have to infer.
Of course they retain their independence of judgment. They have to see the application. He doesn’t even have a currently valid passport. So he’s got to apply first for a passport. But I think they want to speed him and his family on their way here as quickly as possible.
RAY SUAREZ: How long would a visiting scholar post be expected to last, and what might be on the menu when it’s finished? Have you even had a chance to think that far ahead, you and Chen together?
JEROME COHEN: We have visiting scholars come to us for a month, a semester, a year. We’re quite flexible.
These are not students. These are relatively senior people, usually mid-career. Some are professors. Some are lawyers. Some are activists like Chen who have very valuable experience. And we are accommodating to their own needs. And we have had very good cooperation. Most of them come with funding from the Chinese government.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is going to be under very different circumstances, if not to say difficult circumstances. Would you expect your friend to return to China when he’s done?
JEROME COHEN: We would be delighted to have him come. The idea would be, they could come for up to a year.
And, at that point, he will be more comfortable with himself. He will be more adjusted to freedom. And he will have to decide what next. And my hope is that he will be able to go back to China and take part in not only further study, but also further participation in the law reform movement.
His experience is valuable. He understands the unique conditions of the Chinese countryside and its relationship to an evolving legal system. He’s got 40 more years ahead of him to use. And we want to make the most of that.
RAY SUAREZ: What does this incident — and it may not be totally over — tell you about the evolving state of play in China regarding the ability to dissent and speak openly about your feelings about the government there?
JEROME COHEN: The situation now is very, very serious. Ever since the 17th Party Congress in 2007, there’s been an increasingly repressive atmosphere.
And while Chen’s problem may be solved at least for the immediate future, I worry about other members of his family. I worry about some of the people who have given him legal assistance.
One of those lawyers, for example, Mr. Jiang Tianyong, whom I met threw Chen about eight years ago, has once again been locked up. He tried visit Chen at the hospital. Apparently, the police have taken him in and beaten him again. He’s a gallant human rights lawyer, a fine person, and a friend of mine. And I’m very concerned about him.
The problem is, what about those who don’t have the world spotlight on them?
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jerome Cohen of NYU Law School, thanks for talking to us, sir.