Q&A: Jerome Cohen

The NYU Law School professor and activist on China, human rights and Chen Guangcheng


By Jessica Lee

On Thursday, the 4th of October, it is an unseasonably muggy afternoon. Summer lingers, and my head is as seemingly cluttered with thoughts as Professor Cohen’s desk in the far corner is bestrewn with papers and scrolls patterned in Chinese calligraphy.

Professor Jerome Cohen is a law professor at NYU Law School and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute. Earlier this year, he was instrumental in extracting Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist, from under Chinese custody and into the US. Chen is currently in New York as a visiting scholar at NYU with his wife and two children.

I had written Mr. Cohen to gain insight into the makings of a human rights advocate specializing in Chinese law. What follows is our conversation.

What got you started in Chinese Law and human rights?

There’s the story of a man who goes to a house of ill repute and meets a wonderfully refined woman, and he asks her, ‘How did you get involved in this business?’

To which she replies, ‘Just luck.’

That’s how I got into Chinese law: just luck. Confucius once said, ‘San shi, er li—Establish yourself at thirty!’ [Professor Cohen snaps his fingers.] I am thirty. I want to be a pioneer. Why teach labor law or tax or something? If you’re going to be an all-out academic, do something exciting that no one’s ever done before. Most people thought, and they were being charitable, that I was having a nervous breakdown

Well, earlier this year you helped bring in Chen Guangcheng. Where did you first meet him?

The US state department called me one day and they told me that this guy was coming, this guy who was blind, coming over with his wife. They sent me his bio, and I said, ‘Don’t bother me. This guy hasn’t even been to law school, and I haven’t finished grading my exam papers. Let me pass on this one.’

The state department insisted, and I conceded, and said I’ll give him half an hour. Chen came by and we ended up talking for about four hours.

He told me, ‘You’ll never understand what I’m trying to do until you come down to my village.’ So I went down to Dongshigu and spent three days there. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent much time in the Chinese countryside, but this place is really waidi [an alien land]. Anyway, we became good friends. Several years later, he got locked up, and I’ve been working to get him out ever since, and to my amazement, we did!

I’ve also read that you’ve met Deng Xiaoping. What was that like?

Deng liked to chew tobacco. And he would spit the tobacco out but the waijiaobu [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] told him that it wasn’t good diplomatic conduct. Normally, he would get up and leave the room to expectorate and then come back. But because he wasn’t feeling well, he didn’t want to keep getting up. So they had a spittoon, and they placed the spittoon between Kennedy and Deng, and I was seated right behind them.

We hadn’t expected Kennedy’s family—there were eleven of them—to be invited to stay for the subsequent meeting. We thought the kids, Patrick, Caroline, et cetera, would come say hello and be photographed and leave. But no, Deng was expansive, and said everybody should stay.

I hadn’t prepared the kids for what could happen and I was looking out at them. Deng would be talking, and suddenly: pwwwt! His accuracy was pretty good. But the kids looked at that, and I remember thirteen-year-old Patrick Kennedy, who more recently resigned from Congress, he was just all broken about it. I looked at that kid, ‘You better keep a straight face.’ He knew we had waited years for this.

When you met Deng Xiaoping, could you have predicted that he would have ordered the military seizure of Tiananmen Square?

No, no, how could you? But if I had been asked to do a serious analysis, I would have said that he was surely capable of it. People only think of his economic statesmanship, the return of Hong Kong and all that, but he was a tough Stalinist when it came to keeping a lid on the country.

Does Chen Guangcheng know about June 4th?

Sure, he does. He knows an amazing amount. For a guy who never went to school until he was eighteen, and for somebody who has a limited even college-level education, he knows a lot. He says it’s due in part because his father would read to him a lot, that he knows much about Chinese classics. He also claims that he learned a lot listening to Chinese radio broadcasts.

How is Chen Guangcheng adjusting to life in America? In New York?

Well, you can imagine the challenges. On the other hand, you can imagine that he is a helluva lot better off then he was at Dongshigu village. Or in jail.

But we haven’t got his nephew Chen Kegui out, he’s still locked up. That’s our biggest problem right now.


Interview has been edited and condensed.

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