Naming China's Dead End

Getty Images

In 1989, I lived a block away from the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, D.C. It sat on Connecticut Avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs from the White House past the city limits. In the spring of that year, as pro-democracy protests swelled in Beijing, crowds of Chinese students marched to the embassy in support of the demonstrations.

Late into the night, drivers honked their horns in support of the demonstrators and, after June 4, in disgust at the massacre in Tiananmen Square carried out by troops of the People's Liberation Army and the executions that went on throughout the month.

In 2008, the Chinese delegation moved to a new building in a sterile cul-de-sac of embassies in Washington's Van Ness neighborhood. There is no through traffic. When I've been there, the streets have been empty. The location is ideal for deterring protests: Who would see you?

Nevertheless, on the evening of December 22, 2009, a bunch of us went there for a quiet vigil in honor of Liu Xiaobo, who was about to be tried on subversion charges in Beijing, where it was already the next morning.

Liu, an intellectual as well as an activist, had been arrested one year earlier, just before the release of Charter 08, a declaration of democratic principles. Liu did not write Charter 08 but played a vital role in shaping it and soliciting support. Perry Link, Charter 08's English translator, noted that the document was both "an appeal for such uncontroversial values as human rights, equality, and the rule of law" and "the first public statement in the history of the People's Republic of China to call for an end to one-party rule." In his book Liu Xiaobo's Empty Chair, Link writes:

In 2005 China's president Hu Jintao issued a classified report called "Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep 'Color Revolutions' Out of China." The report warned against allowing figures like Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, or Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in China. .  .  . Shortly after Chinese police discovered that people were signing Charter 08 online, the Communist Party's ruling Politburo held a meeting at which the charter was officially declared to be an attempt at "a color revolution."

Once that happened, Liu, whose name topped the list of signers, was in deep trouble.

Liu had rushed home to China in 1989 from New York, where he was visiting at Columbia University, to support the student-led protests. He is believed to have saved hundreds of demonstrators by persuading them to leave Tiananmen Square as troops began the crackdown. After the protest movement was crushed, Liu served 18 months in prison; he was jailed twice more before his arrest in 2008.

The Chinese government became enraged when Liu, in jail, was announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. It called the award to Liu an "anti-China farce" and unleashed trade and diplomatic retaliation against Norway, where the independent Norwegian Nobel Committee is based. Beijing also tried to intimidate diplomats from attending the ceremony in Oslo. Upon hearing of the award in jail, Liu dedicated it to the victims of June 4.

Just weeks ago, on February 12, the Senate passed a bill to rename the street outside China's Washington embassy "Liu Xiaobo Plaza." President Obama will veto the measure if it passes the House, the White House announced, calling the measure a "ploy" from Senator Ted Cruz. (China's foreign ministry called it a "farce.") It is not clear if the White House thinks the Senate, not one of whose members objected to the idea, and Nancy Pelosi, who has supported it in the past, are in on the ploy or Cruz's stooges.

Perhaps the administration also sees the 1984 renaming of the street outside the Soviet embassy in downtown Washington "Andrei Sakharov Plaza" as a ploy. At the time, the physicist and leader of the human rights movement was in internal exile in the closed city of Gorky. In endorsing "Liu Xiaobo Plaza," the Washington Post editorial board cited Sakharov's stepdaughter, Tatiana Yankelevich. The gesture "definitely made a difference," she said. "There was more press attention, more interest in the issue of human rights, and that was difficult to ignore."

The night of our 2009 vigil was very cold. We read a couple of Liu's poems. We just wanted to do something to mark the occasion, and we needed to do it there at the embassy, even if few people would see us. I remembered that during the tense days of spring 1989, someone inside the embassy tied the curtains in the windows in the shape of a "V"—for victory. After the massacre, several diplomats defected to the United States from that embassy and the consulate in San Francisco. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in jail on Christmas Day, 2009, a few days after our vigil.

The president does not want the street outside the embassy named after an imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate who has played a leading role in China's democracy movement over the past 25 years. The administration says it will cooperate with Congress on "more productive ways" to advance human rights. No one is stopping them. Yes, renaming the street would be a small gesture. But by refusing to allow it, the president is being small in a different way.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More