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."
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
Also notable about this brazen show of might is that the missiles traveled through two countries, Iran and Iraq, before hitting their 11 targets in Syria. This means that both countries either gave their permission or simply didn’t confront Putin about the use of their airspace on his birthday.
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
Somewhere in Europe, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
Why Americans tend more and more to want inexperienced presidential candidates
The presidency, it’s often said, is a job for which everyone arrives unprepared. But just how unprepared is unprepared enough?
Political handicappers weigh presidential candidates’ partisanship, ideology, money, endorsements, consultants, and, of course, experience. Yet they too rarely consider an element of growing importance to voters: freshness. Increasingly, American voters view being qualified for the presidency as a disqualification.
In 2003, I announced in National Journal the 14-Year Rule. The rule was actually discovered by a presidential speechwriter named John McConnell, but because his job required him to keep his name out of print, I graciously stepped up to take credit. It is well known that to be elected president, you pretty much have to have been a governor or a U.S. senator. What McConnell had figured out was this: No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.* Surprised, I scoured the history books and found that the rule works astonishingly well going back to the early 20th century, when the modern era of presidential electioneering began.
“If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop.”
There’s plenty of research out there on the benefits of remote and flexible work. It’s been shown to lead to increased productivity, and has an undeniable benefit for work-life balance. But what does it do to everyone back at the office?
In a 2013 memo to workers explaining why the company was eliminating policies that allowed remote work, Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s head of human resources,argued that some of the “best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion,” and that actual presence in the office encourages better collaboration and communication.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
What will happen to digital collections of books, movies, and music when the tech giants fall?
When you purchase a movie from Amazon Instant Video, you’re not buying it, exactly. It’s more like renting indefinitely.
This distinction matters if your notion of “buying” is that you pay for something once and then you get to keep that thing for as long as you want. Increasingly, in the world of digital goods, a purchasing transaction isn’t that simple.
There are two key differences between buying media in a physical format versus a digital one. First, there’s the technical aspect: Maintaining long-term access to a file requires a hard copy of it—that means, for example, downloading a film, not just streaming from a third party’s server. The second distinction is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with how the law has shaped digital rights in the past 15 years. It helps to think about the experience of a person giving up CDs and using iTunes for music purchases instead.
The Red Planet once had an ocean and a magnetic field. A new mission is setting out to discover what happened to them.
The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars’s magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk?
“We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
There are a few leading theories about what decimated the planet’s magnetism. One of them is that huge asteroids bombarded Mars until its magnetic field turned off. That storm of asteroids may have included one enormous rock in particular, even bigger than the one believed to have wiped out Earth’s dinosaurs. Another theory explores the possibility that Mars’s ancient magnetic field only ever covered one of its hemispheres, an idea that would also explain how the planet’s magnetism weakened over time. “The presence of a magnetic field is key to understanding the history of Mars’s atmosphere, which of course is key to habitability on Mars’s surface,” Banerdt told me.