State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf during a daily press briefing repeatedly declined to offer an opinion on the effort to name the street for the dissident and 2010 Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.
Asked whether the move would be helpful for broader U.S. foreign policy aims, Harf said she had “no position to share with you all” on the pending legislation. A reporter pointed out that the administration has expressed opinions on pending legislation on other occasions, but Harf would not budge.
“Most of the time, actually, we don’t comment publicly on our positions on pending legislation. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.”
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved by voice vote an amendment to the fiscal year 2015 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, directing the secretary of state to rename a section of International Place in Northwest Washington, “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”
Street signs to that effect would have to be posted, and for U.S. Postal code purposes the embassy’s address would change from 3505 International Place, N.W. to No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who authored the amendment, said this meant that “every piece of incoming mail to the embassy would bear the name of the imprisoned Nobel laureate.”
He called it “a symbolic – but strong – message that the United States is committed to advocating for the protection of basic human rights worldwide.”
The Chinese government, which fumed when Liu was awarded the Nobel prize for what the prize committee called “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” – and still does so whenever Western leaders bring up his name – on Wednesday called the street renaming move “nothing more than a sheer farce.”
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused its sponsors of “meaninglessly hyping the so-called human rights issue.” She described Liu as “a criminal who has been sentenced according to law by Chinese judicial authority due to violation of Chinese law.”
Liu, a writer and rights activist jailed after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, was arrested again in 2008 after helping to draft Charter 08, a manifesto calling for peaceful political reform in the Communist Party-ruled state.
He was put on trial for “inciting subversion of state power,” convicted, and sentenced in Dec. 2009 to 11 years’ imprisonment, plus deprivation of political rights for two years.
“I’m not going to comment on the pending legislation,” Harf repeated at Wednesday’s press briefing. “We’ve been very clear about the fact that we would like to have and do have a constructive and productive relationship with China.”
But later during the same briefing, Harf did offer comment on pending legislation, in that case a U.S. Senate committee proposal to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt.
Challenged on her willingness to comment on pending legislation “when you think that it serves your interests,” she said, “There are some times we think it’s in our best interest to communicate privately to Congress how we feel about legislation, and sometimes we believe it’s important to do so publicly.”
In a 2010 commentary, the state-run China Daily said Liu had “spared no effort in working for Western anti-China forces.”
“By rumor-mongering and libeling, [Charter 08] denies the people’s democratic dictatorship, socialism and the unitary state structure stipulated in the Chinese Constitution,” it said.
“The charter also entices people to join it, with the intent to alter the political system and overturn the government. Liu’s activities have crossed the line of freedom of speech into crime.”
In an editorial last December, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said China’s legal system “makes sure a society of 1.3 billion people runs smoothly. It will not make an exception for Liu under the pressure or appeal of the West.”
“The U.S., in hopes of seeing China's legal system crashed by the combined force of globalization and the Internet, is labeling extreme views of activists of the country as free speech,” it said. “But only the Chinese law has the final say as to whether a person has violated its law or not.”
In arguing for the street name change, Wolf cited as precedent the naming of a section of 16th Street N.W. for the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in the 1980s. At the time it was home to the Soviet Embassy, although the mission – by then the Russian Embassy – moved to its present location near the Naval Observatory in 1994. (The originally-targeted building remains the Russian ambassador’s residence.)
If the Liu name change goes ahead, Chinese diplomats may be tempted to take a leaf out the British government’s book.
In the 1980s, Iranian authorities renamed Churchill Boulevard in Tehran in honor of Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands, who died in prison in 1981. The move was clearly designed to embarrass Britain, since its embassy was located there, but – according to published accounts – the mission’s main entrance was moved to a parallel street, so that diplomats, staff and visitors did not have to pass the “Bobby Sands Street” signs while approaching the building.