From Michael Laris at The Washington Post:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf (R) and a bipartisan group of congressional colleagues want the stretch of street in front of the embassy renamed for imprisoned pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
“This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people … and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history,” they wrote in a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray and members of the city council.
[…] “Obviously, a letter signed by a number of members of the House is something we want to take seriously,” said council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
But Mendelson refrained from endorsing the idea, citing both practical issues and possible concerns about setting precedent. Mendelson has helped sink a series of requests from Gray to name city streets for people who died tragically in recent years, including a murder victim.
District law, Mendelson said, requires a person to be dead for two years before a street can be named after them, though he said the council has the power to make exceptions. [Source]
China has already expressed its lack of enthusiasm, Reuters’ Michael Martina reports:
“A few members of the U.S. Congress doing this, first, is to look down upon and disrespect Chinese law. Secondly, this is very provocative and ignorant behavior,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
“What kind of person is Liu Xiaobo? He is someone who violated Chinese law and he has been sentenced according to law by China’s judicial bodies,” Qin told reporters at a regular press briefing. [Source]
District laws notwithstanding, there is already precedent for the scheme. In 1984, the address of the Soviet embassy in Washington was changed from 1125 16th Street to No. 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza, after the Russian physicist and rights activist who died in 1989. “Every piece of mail the Soviets get will remind them that we want to know what has happened to the Sakharovs,” the senator behind the change, Alfonse D’Amato, said. Last year, New York-based group Advancing Human Rights started campaigning for a new wave of name changes, including “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.” Writing at The Wall Street Journal with Garry Kasparov in November, the organization’s executive director David Keyes suggested that the rechristening of Sakharov Plaza had had a real impact:
This simple but inspired congressional measure helped put human rights at the center of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Following the symbolic move, in late 1986, the Soviets allowed Sakharov and his wife to return to Moscow from years of exile. As voices of dissent grew stronger, Soviet tyranny grew weaker. Today, the Soviet Union is gone, but autocracy in Russia is not. And neither is the need to remind the world of the brave dissidents who risk everything for freedom.
[… A]s we saw with the collapse of the Soviet Union, regimes that jail and murder dissidents are destined to fall when we have the courage to hold up a mirror to their brutality. [Source]
The state-run Global Times, though, was dismissive this week of gestures by the “rascally varmints in the US Congress,” after the passage of a bill condemning China’s human rights record.
[…] Basically speaking, China has taken no notice toward all these noises from the US Congress.
In actuality, the more malevolently the US Congress reproaches China and the more unscrupulous demands it makes, the more averse the Chinese mainstream society will feel. The members of the US Congress have helped shape Chinese people’s understanding of the US to a certain degree.
[…] They attempt to ravage China’s social order by conveying to certain forces in China that they will support their activities.
Now the US Congress has become a garbage heap filled with various anti-China sentiments. It is necessary for the representatives to reflect on themselves and become fully aware of the bitter consequences of their actions. [Source]
Whether or not renaming the street after Liu would alienate the Chinese public, it could have other unintended consequences. Liu will become eligible for parole this year, having served half his sentence. Reuters reported recently that the main objection to his early release is fear that he would become a tool in the hands of “hostile forces.” Using his name to embarrass China’s embassy would do little to dispel such concerns, though it isuncertain in any case whether Liu would accept release on the terms offered.