Now that the heavyweight armchair analysts of the world have finished hardy-har-haring that 55 Anjialou Road – the address of the U.S. embassy in Beijing – should be renamed “1 Snowden Street” or “1 Bin Laden Road,” let’s try to see what’s going on here. Last Tuesday in D.C. the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to the State/Foreign Operations Bill which stated:
“Not later than 45 days after the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall officially rename the section of International Place, Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, which runs directly in front of the the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Xiaobo Plaza and shall produce accompanying street signs to reflect this change. For the purposes of the United States Postal code, hereafter the proper address for the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Washington, District of Columbia shall be No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”
The bipartisan group first intended the renaming to coincide with the 25th anniversary of liusi by appealing to D.C. mayor Vincent Gray to make the change. But since the street is federal property, President Obama would ultimately have to sign off on the name change, not the D.C. city council, so the plan was delayed.
In response to the original proposal, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said “a few members of the U.S. Congress doing this, first, is to look down upon and disrespect Chinese law. Secondly, this is very provocative and ignorant behavior.” Qin added, “Liu Xiaobo is a man who has violated Chinese laws, he has been convicted in accordance with the law,” and “what kind of person is Liu Xiaobo? He is someone who violated Chinese law and he has been sentenced according to law by China’s judicial bodies.” A Chinese embassy spokesman said, “we believe that the U.S. people will not like to see a U.S. street be named after a criminal.” The court system in China is the Communist Party’s court, not an independent national court system – one of the things Liu Xiaobo sought. It would be as if the US had the Republican Party Court or the Democrat Party Court and they ruled according to party needs rather than according to the Constitution.
In short, Qin is saying might makes right – because the Party has ruled what is has on Liu, that’s the end of it. Qin says to rename the street after Liu is “to look down upon and disrespect Chinese law,” and this ignores crucial distinctions that the CCP refuses to make. They insist that the Party = China, that their interests are one in the same, and that to question the CCP is to question China. To pressure the CCP and “disrespect” it = disrespecting China and it’s people. If other countries meant to disrespect and look down on China, why would they support Chinese people working to improve their government and country? The CCP also forgets that the law and what’s right are not always the same.
Many netizens have echoed Qin’s sentiment that Congress is displaying “provocative” and “ignorant” behavior, some adding that it’s a juvenile and childish move. I admit I don’t understand the “childish” charge, but from reading the comments my guess is they come from people who pass too much time on the internet and view things in terms of “trolling” and “not trolling.” In any case let’s look at China’s actions towards Norway and Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, after the Nobel Committee awarded Xiaobo the Peace Prize.
When Beijing decided to start a 72-hour visa-free visit option, every country in Europe and Scandinavia was included…except Norway. As The Financial Times reported, “when asked why Norway was left off the list, Wang Qin, a senior official at the Beijing government travel administration, did not respond directly but said that some countries were not eligible because their citizens or government were of ‘low quality’ and ‘badly behaved.'” Anyone who has had even passing experience with the Chinese government, and unfortunately many Chinese tourists, knows that Mr. Wang here is, oh what’s the Chinese expression…confusing black for white.
Norway also saw what could be called randomly onerous complications imposed on its salmon exports to China. The Chinese government stopped all high level contact with Norway and eventually the Norwegians had to attempt to remedy this by cancelling a meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Liu Xia has been under house arrest in Beijing for 4 years despite having committed no crime. Police officers stay outside her apartment to make sure no one visits her. She has no internet and limited phone access. As one of Liu Xiaobo’s counsels wrote, this has contributed to her deteriorating physical and mental health.
As for the suggestion that Beijing should reciprocate by renaming the street where the US embassy sits, why would the CCP rename the street after Edward Snowden? Snowden is working in the name of goals that are in line with American ideals and which would certainly land him a long prison sentence in China (maybe America too, but that’s another discussion) – limited, accountable government and the primacy of individual liberty. To rename the street after Snowden would be to affirm the universal values that Liu Xiaobo, among others, has fought for and that the CCP rejects.
So where’s Congress coming from with this? The cynical answer might be that the US government doesn’t really care about human rights issues but just wants to poke China in the eye (or at least they 30% care and 70% want to poke China in the eye). Or that this is simply a move by House Republicans to put Obama – with his weak geopolitical standing – on the spot (though it’s unlikely given that Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats are involved). A pragmatic answer might be that the US is countering recent assertive moves by Beijing such as the recent publishing of a vertical map that significantly augments China’s territorial claims – a move consistent with the Justice Department’s recent indictment of 5 PLA officers for cyber espionage. Maybe this group of lawmakers from the House knows this probably won’t happen, but they want to send the signal out that some in Congress still have some balls and integrity when it comes to China and geopolitics generally.
The idealistic answer can be found in Nancy Pelosi’s speech in front of Congress earlier this month, “twenty-five years ago, Tiananmen became synonymous with the battle for human rights in China – again, an iconic sight for an iconic struggle for justice and democracy. Twenty-five years later, the spirit of Tiananmen endures in the hearts and minds of those continuing to struggle, both in China and around the world. What moral authority do we have to say to a small country: ‘You cannot violate the human rights of your people,’ but we’ll take anything the Chinese have to dish out, because we have a commercial interest there?”
The reality probably includes all of these answers. (And the solution may be to get naked and run in the street.)
Pelosi continued, “and again, the Chinese government likes to say to prisoners: ‘Nobody knows you’re here. They don’t remember who you are. They don’t remember why you came here.’”
The National Post reported, “Xia Yeliang, a Chinese academic, said Liu Xia, the dissident’s wife who herself has been under house arrest since 2010, had shown enthusiasm after he told her of the vote by telephone. He added that he had asked her to pass the message on to Liu Xiaobo, but that the telephone line had gone dead.”
“’She immediately laughed, a very loud laugh, a joyful laugh,’ Prof. Xia said.”
Even if the proposal doesn’t make it to the President’s desk, I hope that laugh, bringing this bit of news, rings its way into a certain prison cell in Liaoning.