Members of Congress press D.C. to rename street by Chinese Embassy after jailed activist

Seeking to put a less cuddly spin on the Chinese government ahead of next week’s 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square, a powerful group of congressional representatives is pushing to rename a street in front of the Chinese Embassy.

The sprawling white stone compound sits at 3505 International Pl. NW, about a mile from the National Zoo’s much-loved panda house, home to Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their adorable offspring, Bao Bao — all on loan from China.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) 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 C. Gray (D) and members of the D.C. Council.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the request is under review.

Hundreds of people were killed in 1989 when Chinese soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Dan Southerland, The Post's Beijing bureau chief at the time, talks about what led to the anti-government demonstrations and military crackdown. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

“Obviously, a letter signed by a number of members of the House is something we want to take seriously,” said Phil Mendelson (D), the council’s chairman.

But Mendelson has so far 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 people 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.

“I certainly don’t want to be dismissive. . . . The fact that it is an international human rights issue makes it important enough to consider,” Mendelson said. There could be better ways of “trying to use the nation’s capital” to press the issue, he said.

A Chinese Embassy representative, Jian Fangning, said in a statement that “Liu Xiaobo is a man who has violated Chinese laws, and has been convicted by the Chinese judicial authorities. We believe that the U.S. people will not like to see a U.S. street be named after a criminal.”

Liu took part in the Tiananmen demonstrations, which ended in government gunfire on the night of June 3 and into June 4, 1989. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. He was jailed after the crackdown, spent years in a labor camp, and later continued pushing for legal and political reforms before being arrested again and sentenced in 2009 to 11 more years behind bars for “inciting subversion to state power.”

Wolf joined Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and others in backing the effort.

Wolf pointed to an earlier precedent, the renaming of a street in front of the Soviet Embassy in the 1980s that became Sakharov Plaza, a nod to dissident Andrei Sakharov.

“He has suffered for democracy,” Wolf said of Liu. “This is almost like Sakharov or Sharansky or Solzhenitsyn or Yelena Bonner,” among the 20th century’s most prominent voices of dissent.

Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik and longtime Soviet prisoner, “told me on two different occasions that when people in the West spoke out for him, two things happened. One, his life actually got better in the gulag,” Wolf said. “Secondly, it brought about opportunity for him to get out.”

Andrew J. Nathan, a Columbia University expert on Chinese politics and society, said the bid to rename the District street “is not an epoch-making event.” Only a tiny number of Chinese will know the idea was even raised. Still, he added, it has value as a symbolic action.

“As China’s power rises — its economy grows, its military is expanded, its diplomatic influence increases, its propaganda organs tell their version of China’s story more actively through their international media — as these things happen, more and more countries around the world are afraid to raise subjects that the Chinese Communist Party wants to make taboo. The U.S. stands alone — inadequate as its efforts also are — in its willingness to keep on raising human rights issues that need to be raised,” Nathan said.

Tiananmen will “not go away until the Chinese government comes clean with its people about it, because there are always people in China who are curious about the past and who believe in things like justice and historical truth,” he said.

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Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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