A Good Way to Observe Tiananmen Anniversary (USA Today)
By Gregory Wallance
June 5, 2014
Rename street in front of Chinese Embassy in Washington for Beijing dissident, Liu.
In observation of this year’s 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, a bipartisan group of 14 congressmen last week asked the District of Columbia to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Liu Xiaobo. Liu, a Chinese scholar and human rights activist who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” Translation: Liu had called on the Chinese government to implement democratic reforms and respect the human rights of all Chinese citizens. Apopletic Chinese officials called the proposed renaming “provocative” and “ignorant.”
Note to the District of Columbia (and major U.S. cities with Chinese and Russian consulates such as New York, Chicago, Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles): Don’t back down and don’t stop with Liu Xiaobo Street. For example, change the Russian Embassy’s address to Sergei Magnitsky Plaza, after the young Russian lawyer who revealed mammoth corruption by senior Russian government officials. For his pains, he was imprisoned, beaten, deprived of essential medical treatment, and died an agonizing death in prison. In an especially macabre gesture, the Russian prosecutors then tried and convicted him posthumously of corrupt acts of the kind that he sacrificed his life to expose.
During the Cold War, American cities launched an effective street naming offensive against repressive regimes. In 1981, the steps leading to a small park near the United Nations were named Sharansky Steps, after the imprisoned Soviet dissident, Anatoly Sharansky. In 1984, the mailing address of the Soviet Embassy in Washington was changed to No. 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza. Thereafter, every piece of mail received at the embassy reminded the Soviet diplomats of their Nobel peace prize winner, who had been exiled to the city of Gorky for protesting the invasion of Afghanistan. That same year, New York City named a street close to South Africa’s mission to the United Nations, Nelson and Winnie Mandela Corner.
The time has come for another such campaign. China and Russia will likely retaliate in kind to any street renaming because symbolism is as much a weapon as tanks or drones. But, since the United States has no imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winners, and its leading dissidents, such as Noam Chomsky, make a decent living from America bashing, they will be hard-pressed to come up with an equivalent response.
The Chinese, for example, might rename Tian Ze Road, where the American Chancery is located in Beijing, “Wang Dong Road.” Who? He is a defendant in the recent Department of Justice indictment of five Chinese soldiers for cyber theft but not exactly a world figure.
The Russians might be tempted to rename the American Embassy’s address in Moscow, Edward Snowden Plaza. Then again, Snowden recently characterized Russia as a “place where those (free expression and privacy) rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair.”
More likely, our embassies’ streets will be named after a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay or a death row inmate found to be innocent. Fair enough, since we are hardly free from criticism. But, it would be a small price to pay for keeping the world’s attention focused on Liu or the show trials that pass for a criminal justice system in Russian.
Indeed, within two years of the naming of Andrei Sakharov Plaza, Sakharov and his wife were allowed to return to Moscow. And, as a result of the worldwide condemnation of Sharansky’s imprisonment, including the naming of the Sharansky Steps, he was freed. Sharansky went on to help found Dissidents Squared to promote renaming streets and plazas in front of the embassies of repressive governments after the dissidents those regimes have jailed or murdered.
Sharansky presented the Dissidents Squared Project to Congress earlier this year. Speaking from the hard won experience of nine years in a Soviet prison, he said of the street naming, it’s the “best reminder that the world cares, that the world remembers.”