In 1984, the U.S. Senate responded to the persecution of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov by renaming the site of the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW in Washington Andrei Sakharov Plaza. It was a symbolic act, but one that sent a persistent message to Soviet diplomats, who were unavoidably reminded of Sakharov every time they received a piece of mail. The dissident’s stepdaughter told us in 2014 that the renaming “definitely made a difference … it raised the level of awareness.” Two years after the change, Sakharov was released from internal exile.
Now the Senate has taken a comparable and equally worthy step by voting overwhelmingly to rename the location of the Chinese Embassy, on International Place NW, 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza, in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident. Liu, who wrote a 2008 petition calling for an end to China’s totalitarian system, has been imprisoned by the regime since 2009; he was sentenced to 11 years on charges of inciting state subversion. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since 2010, even though she has not been charged with or convicted of any offense.
This is a particularly good time to impress upon China’s diplomats and their masters that Liu and other defenders of human rights will not be forgotten. President Xi Jinping is in the midst of a sweeping crackdown against critics and independent voices of all kinds, inside and outside China. Lawyers who for years have worked to expand rights have been jailed on trumped-up charges; five editors at a Hong Kong publishing house that was to publish a critical book on Xi were abducted, in at least two cases outside of mainland China, and detained. Western governments, many of which have shied away from criticizing these offenses, need to make clear that they will not be silenced on Beijing’s violations of human rights.
That’s why it is particularly disturbing that the State Department has indicated that President Obama will veto the Senate measure if it reaches his desk. Obama already has a poor record of speaking out for Liu and other Chinese dissidents, despite his occasional promises to do so. Now he apparently thinks it more important to avoid offending Xi than to stand up for a man who will be remembered as the Sakharov of China, a peaceful advocate for democratic reform.
Of course, the regime is bristling. “If the relevant bill is passed into law, it will cause serious consequences,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference. He went on to “demand the U.S. Senate stop promoting the bill.” Those words ought only to fortify Congress’s resolve. It’s sickening to think that Obama would respond to such crude threats by exercising a veto — or that legislators would back down. The House should quickly approve the legislation; and if Liu Xiaobo Plaza must be created as an override of Obama’s veto, it will be a sad but accurate reflection of his record on human rights.
This article appeared on the editorial page of Sunday’s Washington Post.