The not-so-subtle diplomatic tactic of renaming streets to troll other countries


China's Washington Embassy (Google Maps)

China's Washington embassy is getting a new address, according to The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock blog: No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza. The move comes after a vote from the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, whose members want to rename the street as a protest of Beijing's human rights record.

Liu Xiabo is perhaps one of China's most famous dissidents, a writer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but has not been able to receive it because he has been detained since 2008. Liu's wife, Liu Xiu, has described their situation as "Kafkaesque" in a rare interview in 2012.

Is renaming U.S. streets as a way to criticize other countries a wise move? China evidently doesn't think so. “We believe that the U.S. people will not like to see a U.S. street be named after a criminal,” a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy told The Post. On Weibo, Chinese Internet users have made some suggestions for renaming their own streets, including “Osama bin Laden Road” and “Lewinsky.”

However, it's certainly not an unprecedented move. In 1984, then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) helmed a successful attempt to rename the street outside the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW after Andrei Sakharov, a human rights activist and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In China, the practice goes back even further. During the mass name-changing in Shanghai following the Communist takeover, the street on which the Soviet Embassy sat was renamed "Anti-Revisionism Road" to show displeasure for Moscow's brand of Communism (it was renamed the less politicial-sounding East-Central Dongzhimen Road in 1979).

Meanwhile in India, Communist officials in Kolkutta renamed the street on which the U.S. Embassy sits to "Ho Chi Minh Sarani" as an act of criticism of U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Vietnam War.

The practice continues.Activists in Berlin are hoping to rename the street outside the U.S. Embassy after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, but they might face some problems: Plans to rename a street in the German capital after President Ronald Reagan have repeatedly failed to come to fruition and caused controversy.

The practice of street-naming after foreign political leaders even prompted a (deliberately inaccurate*) joke in an episode of "The Simpsons" featuring a spoof of Cuba's Fidel Castro:

So, does renaming streets for foreign policy actually achieve its instigators' goals? The evidence is unclear, but there are some positive points: Sakhorov was allowed to return to Moscow after years of forced exile not long after the street in Washington was renamed.

Regardless, we may well see more of it. David Keyes, executive director of advocacy organization Advancing Human Rights and the driving force behind the plans for Liu Xiaobo Plaza, hopes to eventually rename all kinds of streets after foreign dissidents.

* Castro Street is named after Jose Castro, not Fidel.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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