It's a distraction. Besides, there are better ways to support human rights in China.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
I rarely agree with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, but an amendment making its way through Congress has made me unlikely bedfellows with Beijing’s Washington diplomats.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has sponsored an amendment to rename the street on which the Chinese Embassy stands from International Place to Liu Xiaobo Plaza. Liu is a famous Chinese dissident who deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in the first year of an 11-year prison sentence. In the West, he symbolizes Chinese human rights violations; in China, where he is probably less known, he symbolizes Western meddling in its domestic affairs.
Here’s why changing the address is a foolish idea.
It narrows the scope of the U.S.-China relationship.
"Speaking out against an egregious injustice is the right thing to do," the Post editorial reads, "and, as history has shown, can eventually make a difference." It’s difficult to directly counter that piece of bland sophistry. Yes, speaking out against injustice is important. The United States does — and should — support Liu. But it’s a mistake to indelibly associate the Chinese Embassy with Liu: The U.S.-China relationship encompasses much more than just human rights.
From July 9 to 10 the United States and China will hold their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, featuring U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and their counterparts. The topics addressed — and those carefully ignored — at the dialogue represent a "what’s what" in the relationship: cybersecurity, appreciation of China’s currency, military ties, and Chinese tensions with Japan, among others. Human rights is just one of many topics on the table. (And if the United States didn’t talk to China about any of these other things, it wouldn’t be able to talk to China about human rights.)
The editorial compares the Liu amendment to the decision in 1984 to rename the street just outside of the Soviet Embassy after Andrei Sakharov, one of the USSR’s most prominent dissidents. The USSR was an autarkic empire with limited trade links to the United States, whereas China is the world’s largest trading nation, whose economy is deeply integrated with the United States. It’s a different time, and a different relationship.
It sets an uncomfortable precedent.
The embassy of the disturbingly repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies a generous plot of land in downtown Washington. Should the United States rename that area in honor of Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi women’s rights activist? The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belarus, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries with poor human rights situations have embassies in Washington. Should their embassy addresses all be renamed as well?
It’s not going to work.
Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize sent a strong message to Beijing and to Chinese human rights activists that the international community supports Chinese dissidents and the rights of Chinese. While that support has wavered, Liu’s Nobel Prize remains a potent symbol. Renaming the area around the embassy, on the other hand, won’t galvanize China’s human rights community, nor will it demonstrate U.S. support.
Want to help Liu? Support his wife, Liu Xia, under de facto house arrest in her apartment in Beijing. The newly minted American Ambassador to Beijing, Max Baucus, or a visiting high-ranking U.S. official could try to visit her.
Want to help Liu’s cause? Pass an amendment funding education for dissidents to study in the United States, or in Hong Kong. Provide more U.S.-funded training to human rights lawyers working in China.
In response to the Chinese Embassy’s charge that the renaming is absurd, the Post editorial writes: "What’s absurd is that Liu Xiaobo is now in the fifth year of an 11-year prison sentence for advocating greater freedom for his country, and that his wife is under house arrest for no charge at all." Beijing’s behavior toward Liu is absurd. But U.S. policy has never been to fight absurdity with absurdity. Let’s not start now.