A group of bipartisan U.S. Members of Congress say that the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington should be renamed after jailed Nobel laureate and Chinese dissident Dr. Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese government responded to the request calling it “disrespectful and provocative.” Thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, formally asking the city to rename the section of International Place NW that runs in front of the Chinese Embassy after Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, as a way to highlight Liu’s unjust imprisonment and send a symbolic and strong message that the United States is committed to advocating for the protection of basic human rights worldwide.
In a letter to the mayor and the D.C. City Council, the members wrote that a precedent already exists, pointing to the renaming of the street in front of the Soviet Embassy Sakharov Plaza in the 1980s after prominent anti-Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010.
Fifty-eight year old Liu was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for authoring Charter 08, a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He was previously involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests calling for democratic reform during which Chinese troops stormed the square in the center of Beijing, firing indiscriminately and killing and arresting thousands of pro-democracy protesters. In the weeks before, nearly a million Chinese joined together to call for the resignations of Chinese Communist Party leaders; they held daily vigils, and marched and chanted peacefully. In response, units of the Chinese military shot and killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians, many of whom were not connected to the protests in Beijing and other cities on June 3rd and 4th.
“By renaming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Dr. Liu, we would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe,” the group wrote. “The timing is auspicious for such a move with the Tiananmen anniversary fast approaching. This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people who continue to yearn for basic human rights and representative democracy and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history.”
On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this week, I spoke with David Keyes, Executive Director of New York-based Advancing Human Rights, about his hard work to make ”Liu Xiaobo Plaza” a reality.
RFA: How did you come up with this idea?
Sakharov Plaza in Washington DC. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
David Keyes: A few months ago, Garry Kasparov and I were talking over lunch about our favorite subject: how to pressure dictatorships. He reminded me that in 1984 the US Congress renamed the street in front of the Soviet embassy “No. 1. Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” after the most famous Soviet scientist and human rights advocate. Every time the Soviets walked out of their embassy, they were confronted with the brutality of their regime.
The free world showed that they would not forget the human cost of Soviet tyranny. They raised the name of one of the greatest Soviet human rights advocates ever and in doing so applied real pressure on the regime. It was part of a comprehensive strategy of raising the names of dissidents.
I thought that was brilliant and wanted to recreate that experience today with dictatorships around the world. I wanted people in free societies to know the names of those brave dissidents imprisoned for nothing more than speaking out. I think it’s important for dictatorships to know that we have not forgotten about their political prisoners. It is critical that human rights advocates on the front lines fighting tyranny know that they are not alone — that we care about them and support them.
Dictatorships always try to silence critics and make them feel isolated. It is our duty to push back and support democratic dissidents–rhetorically, politically, morally and symbolically.
RFA: How did these efforts in Congress come to fruition and what did it take to make it happen?
David Keyes: Last November, Kasparov and I co-authored an op-ed about the idea in The Wall Street Journal. There was also a feature in The Daily Beast about Magnitksy Plaza, named after Sergei Magnitsky who died tragically in Russian prison after exposing Putin’s corruption.
But the idea got its biggest push on January 16th, when Natan Sharansky asked me to accompany him to Congress. During testimony before the Lantos Human Rights Commission, Sharansky said:
Advancing Human Rights Executive Director David Keyes. Photo courtesy David Keyes.
“Here is also present my friend, David Keyes, who is running the organization Advancing Human rights. I think, among other things, they came up with a great idea. In the past, there was a square in Washington in front of the Soviet embassy which was called ‘Sakharov Plaza.’ So each time they had to write something at the Soviet embassy, they had to mention Sakharov. Why not do it in front the Iranian embassy–in front of every embassy of every dictatorship in the world? To name the streets in America and other free countries of the world. And that will be the best reminder that the world cares, that the world remembers. And that we will not permit…[dissidents to] disappear.”
Congressman Frank Wolf, co-chairman of the Commission, responded: “That was really powerful…if we can get a list of five embassies, we can have [Nabil] Rajab Square in front of the Bahraini embassy and we’ll do it in front of the Chinese embassy. We’ll ask the DC city council to do this. But that’s a great idea and we will do it and get those letters off.”
Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prison and he credits pressure from the free world for securing his release. So this issue is very close to his heart. Many of the members of Congress present that day campaigned for his release back in the 80s. So for him to come before them and say they had a new opportunity today to stand up for democratic dissidents and apply real pressure was really moving. In a sense, it was the closing of a circle.
RFA: What has been the reaction from China?
David Keyes: The Chinese government responded by furiously denouncing our idea. They said it was disrespectful and provocative.
RFA: What do you say to that?
David Keyes: Well I think it’s disrespectful to jail people for advocating democracy. I think it’s provocative to impose dictatorships on over a billion people.
I expected the Chinese government to react as they did because individual dissidents often symbolize much more than themselves. This is a struggle over the future of China. Will the Chinese government allow dissent and debate or will it continue to brutally repress lawyers, activists, journalists and bloggers? Will China become a democracy or continue to impose dictatorship on so many people?
The fact that the Chinese government was so irked means that our idea is on the right track.
RFA: What are your thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown?
David Keyes: Tiananmen is also a symbol– of hopes and dreams quashed by the Chinese government. The fact that China continues to censor online material about the events of decades ago shows how much they fear open discourse. Tiananmen is a bellwether. When the Chinese government no longer fears the truth about those events, then real progress will have been made.
RFA: When can we expect to see a street sign for Liu Xiaobo Plaza?
David Keyes: Fourteen Republicans and Democrats signed the letter about Liu Xiaobo. It’s not everyday that conservative Republicans like Frank Wolf and liberal Democrats like Minority leader Nancy Pelosi agree. But they came together in a display of real bi-partisanship. In the name of human rights, veteran members joined with the youngest member of the House, Patrick Murphy. They all deserve credit.
On Friday, the mayor’s office and the DC City Council said that given the importance of the signatories, they are seriously considering the proposal. I hope one day in the not too distant future to stand in front of the Chinese embassy along with human rights activists, Chinese dissidents and all who care about a free China to unveil “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”
RFA: How do you hope this will bring renewed attention to the plight of Liu Xiaobo and the human rights situation in China?
David Keyes: I think in a sense this initiative has already put a lot of light on Liu Xiaobo and China’s gross violations of human rights. Within hours of the Congressional letter, Liu Xiaobo’s name was written up in [many international] newspapers.
The Chinese government was forced to respond. They blasted the members of Congress and called Xiaobo a criminal. Imagine that. What kind of society criminalizes dissent and throws a Noble Prize winner behind bars for more than a decade? Liu Xiaobo should be celebrated as a hero, not a criminal.
The more press we can garner for dissidents languishing in prison, the better. The more we know the names of political prisoners, the better. The more pressure dictatorships feel, the better. The more we can open closed societies, the better.
I believe strongly that we can only trust states as much as those states trust their own people. How much does China trust it’s people if it does not even allow them to read about Tiananmen? How much does it trust their people when the government imprison bloggers, lawyers and journalists? So how can we trust China as a state on the international stage?
There is a tendency of some to say, well, we need China economically so forget the human rights file. But only free societies have lasting stability. Only open societies can be trusted in the long term. Democracies pursue peace far more than dictatorships because their decisions are not made by a handful of un-elected and unaccountable people.
Andrei Sakharov’s ethical credo was “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.” Today, pressuring dictatorships and raising the names of democratic dissidents remains the moral and pragmatic choice.
RFA: Russia and China are two of the biggest dictatorships in the world. What’s up next for you to apply pressure?
David Keyes: This idea doesn’t apply to China alone. A few months ago in New York, I had a heated exchange with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif. I asked him when famed student leader Majid Tavakoli would be freed. Zarif said he didn’t know who Tavakoli was. Iran’s UN ambassador also told me he hadn’t heard of him. It is our job to make sure that no Iranian diplomat can ever again claim that they don’t know their own political prisoners. One way to do that is to change the street address in front of every Iranian embassy to the name of an imprisoned dissident. Interestingly, the only human rights advocate I mentioned that Iran’s UN ambassador admitted to having heard about was Nasrin Sotoudeh. He said this was because her name was all over the media.
Shortly after my confrontation with the Iranian foreign minister there was an uproar from Iranians. Zarif’s Facebook page was filled with Iranians asking him why on Earth he hadn’t heard of one of their most famous political prisoners. Within days, Tavakoli was released temporarily from prison on furlough. This experience showed yet again that even the most repressive states care about their PR and are susceptible to pressure.
Former Soviet leader Gorbachev said he released Natan Sharansky after nine years in Soviet prison because it wasn’t worth the international price they were paying. The same was true for a brief moment regarding Iran and Tavakoli. How many of these moments can we recreate? I suspect many, many more.
It is a real pity that all anyone talks about today is the type of weapons Iran is developing. The problem isn’t the type of weapon, but the type of regime. The Iranian government hangs poets, kills opposition, tortures bloggers and jails student leaders. The more we can pressure the Iranian regime on human rights, the safer it will be for everyone.
So next up is “Majid Tavakoli Plaza.” I want to ensure that no matter where an Iranian diplomat goes, he is confronted with the faces and names of activists whose his government jails merely for speaking out. Tavakoli has been in prison for years for advocating freedom. He is young and doesn’t deserve to be in prison. There are hundreds and even thousands more like him currently languishing in jail.