Seeking to put a less cuddly spin 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 Place 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.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf (R) 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 Gray and members of the city council.
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the request is under review.
“Obviously, a letter signed by a number of members of the House is something we want to take seriously,” said council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
But Mendelson 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 a person 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 might be other ways that are more effective in terms of trying to use the nation’s capital to bring attention to this issue in China,” Mendelson added, though he declined to speculate on what those might be.
A Chinese Embassy representative said a spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
Liu took part in the Tiananmen demonstrations, which ended in government gunfire on the night of June 3 and into June 4, 1989, and resulted in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths. 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.”
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.
“Even if we didn’t do anything here, this issue of the injustice of Tiananmen would 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.