Why renaming a Washington street after a leading Chinese dissident is an excellent idea.
- By Pedro PizanoPedro Pizano is the Strategy and Development Associate for the Human Rights Foundation and Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
In 1984, the United States Congress changed the name of the street in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. Henceforth the embassy address would be known as "No. 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza," after the leading dissident and Nobel laureate who had been arrested by the Soviets four years earlier and exiled indefinitely to the city of Gorky, which was off limits to foreigners. His wife, Yelena Bonner, was detained just a few months prior and exiled to Gorky as well.
Every time the Soviets had to write to their embassy in Washington, the letterhead had to be printed with Sakharov’s full name. Every time they walked in and out of the embassy or organized meetings there, they had to mention and see Sakharov’s name. One year later, Yelena Bonner would be permitted to leave the Soviet Union. One year after that, Gorbachev finally allowed Sakharov to return to Moscow.
This simple address change was a powerful reminder to the U.S.S.R. that the world cared about the rights of the individuals it oppressed and wasn’t going to let them forget it. To this day, that one-block section of 16th Street between L and M, where the Soviet Embassy was then located, is still called Sakharov Plaza.
At the time, self-described realists like Henry Kissinger derided symbolic gestures in favor of human rights activists. Kissinger saw such moves as contrary to his policy of détente. What mattered was how states conducted foreign policy, not how they treated their own citizens. In fact, at his confirmation hearings for the position of secretary of state, he stated that "despite some very painful aspects in the Sakharov case, and despite the inevitable sympathies produced by my origin for the plight of minority groups that are denied the right of free emigration, I cannot in good conscience recommend as a principle of American foreign policy that our entire foreign policy should be made dependent on that particular aspect [denial of fundamental human rights] of the domestic structure of the Soviet Union."
Now, almost exactly 30 years later, history is repeating itself.
The House Appropriations Committee has again voted to rename the address of the embassy of a communist dictatorship in honor of its most famous dissident. If the House ratifies this amendment, the new address of the Chinese Embassy in D.C. will be "No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza." Just like Sakharov, Xiaobo is also a Nobel laureate and is also currently in prison. His wife, Liu Xia, like Yelena Bonner at the time, is also currently under house arrest.
The realists of today have also stepped forward with their criticisms. FP‘s own Isaac Stone Fish calls the idea of Liu Xiaobo Plaza "silly," "absurd," and a "distraction." The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead dismisses it as "weak" and "pointless." And a reader’s letter to the Washington Post refers to it as "childish."
These critics argue, first, that criticizing China for its human rights record will (by renaming a street, for example) thwart efforts to discuss "strategic interests." In this logic, human rights are just another issue to be balanced against problems such as security tensions or currency appreciation. Second, the realists assert that such tactics won’t work, since China is different from the Soviet Union. In short, critics of the policy simultaneously dismiss it as ineffective even while warning that it has the potential to derail the entire relationship. A bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?
What today’s critics fail to see is what self-described "realists" have always failed to understand. Human rights — or, as Kissinger would refer to them, the "domestic structure" — are not only a question of morality but also of strategy and self-interest. You see, only governments that trust their own citizens enough to guarantee their rights can be trusted by other governments. Sakharov is supposed to have said: "A society that doesn’t respect the rights of its citizens won’t respect the rights of others." Just look at today’s Russia under Putin: Planes are falling from the sky.
Kissinger and today’s realists set up a straw man fallacy by warning that we should not base our entire foreign policy on human rights. No one is claiming that. Yet the appreciation of China’s currency is not just as important as human rights: The two issues aren’t equivalent and shouldn’t be treated as such. Human rights are not "just one of many topics on the table" — they are the table, to paraphrase activist Thor Halvorssen.
Can the United States really believe that the Chinese government will follow through on its promises when it knows that the government in Beijing doesn’t trust its own citizens? And that includes agreements on "hard," strategic issues, like China’s management of its currency, within the framework of the recently concluded U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The criticisms of Liu Xiaobo plaza presuppose that China’s dictatorship is rock solid, and that we must advance our interests there with great care. Yet there have been numerous examples where otherwise "stable" dictatorships have fallen without anyone being able to predict it. Mubarak’s Egypt and Communist Poland are just two examples. Do we really want to be known for cooperating with the dictators of China rather than supporting its possible future democratic leaders?
Renaming Liu Xiaobo Plaza will work. Yes, China is not the same as the Soviet Union, but differences in military and trade relationships will not determine the impact of such an idea. What matters here is the amount of international shame that a country can bear. No one, including China, likes to be criticized.
They’re already feeling the heat. In response to the vote in the Appropriations Committee, China’s Foreign Ministry said: "It is nothing more than an attempt to smear China. We think this is purely a farce." Geng Shuang, embassy spokesman, also told FP in a statement, "This amendment is really absurd."
Jared Genser, Liu Xiaobo’s international legal counsel and one of the world’s foremost experts on liberating political prisoners, views that reaction from the Chinese as a positive sign: "Critics of Liu Xiaobo Plaza utterly miss the point," Genser told me in an email. "It is precisely because the Chinese are so upset about this potential symbolic gesture that its utility to advance the campaign for his freedom is so clear."
In his FP article attacking the proposal to change the Chinese embassy’s address, Isaac Stone Fish also argues that the plaza idea will set an uncomfortable precedent. "The embassy of the disturbingly repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies a generous plot of land in downtown Washington," he notes. "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?"
The answer should be obvious: Yes, of course they should. Who, besides the dictators, would have a problem with that?