Tea Leaf Nation

Changing the Chinese Embassy's Address to Liu Xiaobo Plaza Is a Silly Idea

It's a distraction. Besides, there are better ways to support human rights in China.

I rarely agree with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, but an amendment making its way through Congress has made me unlikely bedfellows with Beijing's Washington diplomats.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has sponsored an amendment to rename the street on which the Chinese Embassy stands from International Place to Liu Xiaobo Plaza. Liu is a famous Chinese dissident who deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in the first year of an 11-year prison sentence. In the West, he symbolizes Chinese human rights violations; in China, where he is probably less known, he symbolizes Western meddling in its domestic affairs.

On July 5, the Washington Post editorial page endorsed the amendment. A Chinese Embassy spokesperson called the amendment "really absurd" -- and I agree.

Here's why changing the address is a foolish idea.

It narrows the scope of the U.S.-China relationship. 

"Speaking out against an egregious injustice is the right thing to do," the Post editorial reads, "and, as history has shown, can eventually make a difference." It's difficult to directly counter that piece of bland sophistry. Yes, speaking out against injustice is important. The United States does -- and should -- support Liu. But it's a mistake to indelibly associate the Chinese Embassy with Liu: The U.S.-China relationship encompasses much more than just human rights.

From July 9 to 10 the United States and China will hold their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, featuring U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and their counterparts. The topics addressed -- and those carefully ignored -- at the dialogue represent a "what's what" in the relationship: cybersecurity, appreciation of China's currency, military ties, and Chinese tensions with Japan, among others. Human rights is just one of many topics on the table. (And if the United States didn't talk to China about any of these other things, it wouldn't be able to talk to China about human rights.)

The editorial compares the Liu amendment to the decision in 1984 to rename the street just outside of the Soviet Embassy after Andrei Sakharov, one of the USSR's most prominent dissidents. The USSR was an autarkic empire with limited trade links to the United States, whereas China is the world's largest trading nation, whose economy is deeply integrated with the United States. It's a different time, and a different relationship.

It sets an uncomfortable precedent.

The embassy of the disturbingly repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies a generous plot of land in downtown Washington. Should the United States rename that area in honor of Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi women's rights activist? The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belarus, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries with poor human rights situations have embassies in Washington. Should their embassy addresses all be renamed as well? 

It's not going to work.

Liu's Nobel Peace Prize sent a strong message to Beijing and to Chinese human rights activists that the international community supports Chinese dissidents and the rights of Chinese. While that support has wavered, Liu's Nobel Prize remains a potent symbol. Renaming the area around the embassy, on the other hand, won't galvanize China's human rights community, nor will it demonstrate U.S. support.

Want to help Liu? Support his wife, Liu Xia, under de facto house arrest in her apartment in Beijing. The newly minted American Ambassador to Beijing, Max Baucus, or a visiting high-ranking U.S. official could try to visit her.

Want to help Liu's cause? Pass an amendment funding education for dissidents to study in the United States, or in Hong Kong. Provide more U.S.-funded training to human rights lawyers working in China.

In response to the Chinese Embassy's charge that the renaming is absurd, the Post editorial writes: "What's absurd is that Liu Xiaobo is now in the fifth year of an 11-year prison sentence for advocating greater freedom for his country, and that his wife is under house arrest for no charge at all." Beijing's behavior toward Liu is absurd. But U.S. policy has never been to fight absurdity with absurdity. Let's not start now.


Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Censors Just Had Their Busiest Day of the Year

It was more active even than June 4, and proof that Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests have spooked Beijing.

On July 1, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters flooded the streets of central Hong Kong, braving intermittent rain and, in some cases, staying out well past midnight until they were forcibly cleared by police. Back on the mainland, censors were quietly active. According to Weiboscope, a project of Hong Kong University that tracks censorship of active users on Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform, the percentage of deleted posts surpassed even that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

This year's July 1 anniversary, which marks Hong Kong's 1997 return to mainland Chinese sovereignty after more than 100 years of British colonial rule, became a flashpoint for Hong Kongers anxious about encroachment from Beijing. These fears became more acute after a June 10 white paper issued by Beijing claimed "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the city, which seemed to disregard the "one country, two systems" principle underpinning Hong Kong's handover. Organizers estimated that crowds reached about 510,000, while police pegged turnout closer to 98,000.

The date was also apparently a flashpoint for censors. According to Weiboscope, censors deleted over 70 posts per 10,000 tracked on July 1; in comparison, they deleted over 64 per 10,000 on June 4. Weibo censors deleted images of Hong Kong streets packed with protesters, some holding signs calling for universal suffrage, some being restrained by Hong Kong police. Even photos with captions as seemingly innocuous as "Hong Kong, right now" or "Pearl of the Orient," a nostalgic term for the port city, got the axe. Weibo censors blocked the search term "7/1 march" and deleted comments expressing solidarity with the protesters' cause. A poem calling Hong Kong a "window to heaven" and a "last hope" made the rounds on the platform, but censors actively scrubbed references to it. 

While China's censors were culling chatter about the massive march, state-run media was focusing on a far smaller gathering. A report by government-run broadcaster China Central Television cheerfully documented the small official flag-raising ceremony marking the anniversary, which only attracted around 2,500 people -- including government officials and participants -- to Hong Kong's downtown Bauhinia Square. Both state-run Xinhua News and party mouthpiece People's Daily echoed that coverage with articles that provided a play-by-play of the flag-raising ceremony. Some Weibo users subtly mocked the fact that July 1 is also the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. They paired pictures of the amassed protestors with faux-congratulatory captions, like this one: "Today is the Communist Party's birthday, and this is Hong Kong residents' birthday gift!"   

Those wry takes didn't last long either. But the censors' busy day underscores just how seriously central authorities take the fallout from Hong Kong pro-democracy activism. And it suggests they do not yet feel comfortable relying on persuasion alone to make Beijing's case.

AFP/Getty Images