Wei Jingsheng, photographed here with U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997, is one of China's most prominent dissidents. (White House/AP)
It's a story made for the movies: A brave Chinese dissident, long harassed by his government, arrives in the United States and takes up residency at a prominent New York City university. At first, the arrangement seems to go well. But soon, problems emerge: the university feels that the dissident isn't contributing much to the academic life of the school, and ultimately decides that it'd be best for him to leave. The dissident reacts bitterly, accusing the school of buckling from pressure from the Chinese government, a claim the school denies. Unable to return to China, the dissident then has to decide his next professional home in the United States.
At a glance, this appears to summarize the recent experience of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident currently squabbling with New York University. But in fact, this is the story of a different man: Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese dissident who, following his exile to the United States in 1997, completed a brief and unhappy stint as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Wei and Chen's experiences are not identical, but the similarities between their experience are eerie, and provide insight into the difficulties high-profile Chinese dissidents face in adjusting to their new lives as normal, ordinary citizens.
Wei Jingsheng now lives in Washington, D.C., where he runs a foundation promoting democracy in China. A slight man in his early 60s, Wei's unassuming nature belies his status as arguably China's most prominent dissident. In 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping consolidated power in China and launched the economic reforms that would ultimately transform the country, Wei Jingsheng was working as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo. One day, he approached a brick wall in the city's Xidan District and wrote a passage calling for China to implement democracy. Unlike the many other notes plastered on the wall, Wei's included his real name and address, and before long he had emerged as the unofficial face of a new movement challenging the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly of power. A few months later, though, Wei was arrested and sent to jail, where he would remain for most of the next 18 years.
Upon his release and subsequent deportation to the United States, Wei found himself sought after by a number of universities, ultimately choosing to work as a visiting scholar at Columbia. Problems arose almost immediately, ranging from the mundane (Wei, a heavy smoker, successfully earned the right to smoke in his office on campus) to the question of what Wei would do at Columbia. Though not a faculty member, and thus not obliged to teach a course, the university still expected Wei to contribute articles and books to the university as well as meet with students. This didn't happen. Two years later, the collaboration not working out, Columbia asked Wei to leave.
Wei doesn't deny his lack of activity at the university. But, in an echo to Chen Guangcheng, he claims that his departure had more to do with politics than with his performance. "When they asked me -- plead with me -- to leave, the reason was because board members didn't want me there anymore," he says. Wei's outspoken views about the Chinese government -- he believes, for instance, that the U.S. shouldn't engage with China economically until China improves its human rights record -- place him at odds with conventional attitudes in academia. Andrew Nathan, a longtime Columbia China scholar, told the Taipei Times in a 2003 interview that Wei's views on China were "unrealistic."
Reconciling the experiences of political dissidents -- men and women who risk their lives for their political beliefs -- with American university life is challenging enough. But for men like Wei Jingsheng and Chen Guangcheng, both of whom lacking a formal education or the ability to speak English -- adjusting to their new situation proved exceptionally difficult. For Wei, nearly two decades in prison had left him ill equipped to deal with his new-found freedom, much less the usual difficulties expatriates face in a strange country. As for Chen, his relatives in China have continued to suffer abuse and harassment from the local government officials who once enforced his house arrest.
NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen, the man most responsible for arranging Chen's passage to the university, claims the school treated its famous dissident well, telling Foreign Policy in an interview that Chen was "obviously being guided by people who have a different point of view from [Cohen's] own." Cohen may be referring to Bob Fu, the Chinese-born director of ChinaAid, a Christian organization which has worked with Chinese exiles in the past. Though Fu denies that his organization is political in nature, he has spoken out against Chinese government influence on American academic freedom.
This, too, is a viewpoint shared by both Chen and Wei: that the Chinese government exerts a growing, and malign, influence on American universities. But it's far from clear whether this accusation is valid. Schools in the United States have accelerated their engagement with China, both from admitting more Chinese nationals as well as by building satellite campuses in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However, according to Professor James Feinerman of Georgetown University, a person like Chen would have "no way of knowing the extent of NYU's relationship with China". Noting that Chen and Wei come from a society in which the government plays a large role in all levels of education, Feinerman notes that it's only natural for a person like Chen to be suspicious that the same principle applies in the United States.
Wei Jingsheng has never met Chen Guangcheng, and claims that the younger man has not reached out to him since moving to the United States. But while he is sympathetic to the pressures Chen has faced, Wei also believes Chen should limit his criticisms of The United States, even if he does not agree with Washington's policies toward China.
"People might say to me 'Hey look -- you too criticized President Clinton'. But I criticized him only on the issue of his cooperation with Chinese government. I never criticized him for rescuing me from China."
Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.
For my sins, I have read every U.S. presidential inaugural address ever given, and played a small part in writing one of them—Jimmy Carter’s, delivered 40 years ago today.
The first one I remember hearing, John F. Kennedy’s in 1961, I saw on a fuzzy black-and-white TV from my 7th-grade American history classroom in California. The arctic conditions that day in Washington practically radiated through the TV screen. I remember seeing the revered 87-year-old poet Robert Frost hunch against the wind and squint in the low-sun glare as he tried to read the special inaugural ode he had composed. Then Richard Nixon, just defeated by Kennedy in a hair’s-breadth race, reached across to block the glare with his top hat. Frost waved him off and began reciting from memory one of his best-known poems, “The Gift Outright.”
Donald Trump will take the oath of office on Friday, becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Donald Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, to become the 45th president of the United States.
The day’s inaugural festivities will get underway in the morning and continue through Saturday. The swearing-in ceremony, which will take place outside of the Capitol, is expected to begin at 11:30 a.m., followed by an inaugural parade at 3 p.m. and inaugural balls in the evening.
Thousands of attendees are expected to descend on Washington, DC for the ceremonies, which will likely be met with celebration and protest. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the nation’s capital as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
From the nosebleed section of the National Mall, Donald Trump’s supporters watched his inauguration with high hopes for his presidency.
Friday’s inauguration ceremony was the calm after the storm.
The crowd on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall could have easily turned into one last Trump campaign rally, with thousands of red-topped supporters screaming for their leader and boo-hissing any Democrat spotted on the Jumbotrons.
But the mood inside the security barricades was affable, a byproduct, perhaps, of collective exhaustion from the hassle of navigating through security lines. Or perhaps Trump’s supporters simply realized they didn’t need to shout anymore. After all, they’d already won.
“I feel amazing. I feel like this is Christmas,” Josh Hammaker, a Trump voter from Calvert County, Maryland, told me in the minutes before the ceremony began. Hammaker considers himself a Democrat, but broke for Trump in November. “This is the best day of my life.” Or, at least, “one of ‘em. We’re finally getting our country back.”
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For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
Commentators love to praise the peaceful handover of power—but this year, it stands as a reminder of the system’s fragility and shortcomings.
Every presidency is different, but inaugural coverage is always the same. Commentators congratulate Americans on the peaceful transition of power and intone solemn sentences about democratic renewal.
There is something unnerving about these reassurances, something overstated, even hysterical. When a British prime minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons and must suddenly trundle out of 10 Downing Street (as some six dozen of them have done since the job was invented in the 1740s; a few more than once), nobody marvels on television how wonderful it is that he or she doesn’t try to retain power by force of arms. Nobody in Denmark thinks it extraordinary when one party relinquishes power to another. Ditto New Zealand or Switzerland—all of them treat peaceful transfers of power as the developed world norm, like reliable electricity or potable water.
He’s moved to establish his dominance of his party, of Congress, and of the media. Now, he turns to the nation.
Even for some Republicans, it is still a bit unbelievable. They have it all now—all the power. They won it fair and square. Donald Trump is assuming the presidency, and Republicans control the House and Senate.
They streamed into Washington this week to collect their reward, the activists and party hacks and true believers who helped make it happen. The members of the Republican National Committee, representing every state and territory, gathered in the ornate, slightly dowdy ballrooms of Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel, where they took care of the party’s business between being feted at lunches, receptions, and inaugural balls. The mood was jubilant: Against all odds, after years of frustration, everything they worked for had come to pass.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as Barack Obama, passed the office to Donald J. Trump.
On January 20, 2017, the peaceful transfer of American power took place in Washington, DC, as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama passed the office to President-elect Donald J. Trump. Hundreds of thousands attended the ceremony, gathering in the National Mall to hear the swearing in and Trump’s inaugural address, while groups of protesters clashed with police in some of Washington’s streets. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their wives then bid farewell to former President Obama and his wife, as the Obamas headed to Air Force One for one last flight.