Chinese diplomats on Wednesday said Congress’ decision to rename the street in front of Beijing’s embassy in the U.S. capital after a Chinese dissident is "really absurd" and motivated by concerns not entirely related to human rights.
On Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee voted to rename the street outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., to “Liu Xiaobo Plaza” — after a Chinese dissident who received the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia and is currently serving an 11-year prison term for subverting the government’s authority. Liu has called for an end to one-party rule in China.
The bipartisan move, led by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., would effectively have all correspondence sent to the Chinese Embassy addressed to No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.
“This attempt driven by some personal interests runs counter to the joint efforts by and interests of the vast majority of peoples in both China and the United States to pursue a win-win cooperative partnership between our countries,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“This amendment is really absurd.”
Wolf had not responded to an interview request from Al Jazeera at time of publication.
U.S. trade union United Steelworkers (USW) was among the key proponents of the bid to remind Chinese diplomats of the jailed dissident, according to a statement released by Wolf’s office late Tuesday.
At the time of publication, USW had not answered questions regarding its support for the renaming effort. But according to a copy of a letter sent to Congress by USW President Leo W. Gerard, he said, “The fight for freedom, democracy and human rights depends on people like Dr. Liu and our willingness to stand by their sides.”
China has long been the world’s leading producer of crude steel and its top steel exporter, according to the World Steel Association, ahead of the European Union, Japan and the U.S.
The USW said it has on numerous occasions mounted efforts to protect American industry and consumers from what it called subpar Chinese-produced steel and other products, ranging from green technology to tires.
“What would be gained for [USW], I guess is the question,” said Elizabeth Economy, U.S.-China relations expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, adding that labor rights groups have a history of teaming up with proponents of human rights.
Regardless of intentions, Economy said that renaming a street will not do much to support political reform in China — an ongoing, albeit controversial, project of the Xi Jinping administration, which has mounted a massive crackdown on corruption in the public sector.
“By and large, what the U.S. says doesn’t really affect what the Chinese government does. The Chinese government does what it wants to do with reform in politics and human rights,” she said. “I just think you need to grant the Chinese government more autonomy in its decision-making than perhaps you are.”
Opponents of human rights advocates in China, including in Chinese state media, have often criticized homegrown reform movements for receiving support from the West. Analysts have said that Western administrations’ and activists’ criticisms of China’s human rights situation have set back the work of Chinese human rights advocates.
Gao Wenqian, New York–based senior policy adviser with the international advocacy group Human Rights in China, disagrees with the idea that gestures like Washington’s further the belief that the West has a monopoly on human rights.
“China’s human rights situation must first and foremost rely on people on the inside, but also depends on international support,” he said.
Like Economy, Gao believes that renaming the street in front of the embassy after a dissident is a major show of support for democracy advocates in China.
“This shows that [the U.S. Congress] cares about the popular movement in China,” Gao said.
Supporters of the planned renaming cited a move in the 1980s by the Washington, D.C., City Council to rename the street outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza, after the noted Soviet dissident and human rights advocate. The move was hailed as a major symbol of Washington’s support for human rights internationally.
But Economy believes that, as Chinese diplomats indicated, the move will not affect China’s domestic policy and will exacerbate perennial tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
“I don’t think, frankly, that this symbolic act — clearly irritating — will have any effect on Chinese policy,” she said.