Thirteen members of the United States Congress signed off on an initiative last week to rename the street outside the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, for the incarcerated Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, to serve as a pointed reminder of the country’s human rights violations.
“By renaming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Dr. Liu, we would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to DC Mayor Vincent Gray and the District of Columbia Council.
“The timing is auspicious for such a move with the Tiananmen anniversary fast approaching. This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people who continue to yearn for basic human rights and representative democracy and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history.”
The bill, which was backed Thursday by Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Republican Frank Wolf (R-VA), among others, is part of a larger goal to name the streets outside diplomatic missions of dictatorships for their local dissidents. The project was introduced by New York-based Advancing Human Rights’s “Dissidents Squared” project, launched by the AHR director David Keyes and presented in Congress last January by Jewish Agency chairman and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky — who served nine years in a Soviet prison for his political activism — described the precedent for the project, a 1980s decision that changed the name of the street outside the Soviet embassy to that of the Soviet Union’s most famous dissident, nuclear scientist and author Andrei Sakharov.
“So each time they had to write something at the Soviet embassy, they had to mention Sakharov. Why not do it in front of the Iranian embassy? In front of every embassy of every dictatorship in the world? To name the streets in America and other free countries of the world. And that will be the best reminder that the world cares, that the world remembers. And that we will not permit…[dissidents to] disappear,” he said.
The “Dissidents Squared” project also recommended renaming streets where Iranian embassies are located after the political prisoner Majid Tavakoli, but the suggestion has yet to gain ground among US lawmakers.
Chinese officials responded angrily to the move, calling it “provocative” and “ignorant.”
“A few members of the US 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, according to Reuters.
“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 said.
Liu, a writer, was jailed over his advocacy for civil rights and democratic freedoms. Later, in 2009, he was slapped with an 11-year sentence for subversion after spearheading a petition, “Charter ’08,” calling for democracy reforms. China’s government voiced outrage when he won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
Rep. Wolf presented the idea on May 15 at a Congressional hearing “on lessons learned from the  Tiananmen Square massacre,” and argued in favor of the move’s symbolic power.
“Some may argue that this is purely a symbolic gesture. But symbols have power. The Tiananmen Square demonstrators of 25 years ago understood that symbols speak volumes. What remains to be seen is whether the United States, this ‘shining city on a hill’ as envisioned by our founders, will be on the right side of history in the years ahead, or will continue to, in the words of Dylan, turn our head pretending we just don’t see,” he concluded.