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Liu Xiaobo Street Request Sparks Activists to Ask: What About Democracy in D.C.?

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the world commemorates the June 4, 1989, crackdown in Tiananmen Square, some powerful members of the House want to christen a street outside the Chinese Embassy in Northwest Washington in a symbolic protest of perceived tyranny.  

“The case of the imprisoned Nobel Laureate, Dr. Liu Xiaobo, serves as a stark reminder to the world that China’s human rights abuses are as bad, if not worse, today,” the bipartisan group, spearheaded by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., stated in a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council.  

Wolf and 13 other lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., believe renaming the stretch of International Drive in front of the the sweeping limestone complex that flies China’s flag “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.”  

To local activists steadfastly fighting for representative democracy for D.C. — including voting representation in Congress — the congressional request to rename part of the city to recognize human rights abuses halfway around the globe seems misguided. DC Vote sent a follow-up letter to Gray and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asking them to consider responding to Wolf’s request with an appeal of their own.  

“While Liu is richly deserving of such an honor, it seems reasonable that Congress should first be asked to address the lack of democracy right here in the District of Columbia before requesting that you rename a street to highlight a champion of human rights,” DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry stated in her letter.  

Perry said that Congress can’t be given a pass on the lack of democracy in the District while it attempts to support democracy around the world. She questioned whether Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for inciting subversion against Chinese authorities, might find it “somewhat awkward to be honored with a street running through a place where Americans have no vote in their national legislature?”  

Congress has used its authority over the nation’s capital for symbolic changes to street names in the past. The 1985 appropriations bill for the District contained a provision changing the Soviet Embassy’s mailing address from 1125 16th St. NW to No. 1 Andrei Sakharov Plaza, in honor of a Soviet dissident.  

This time, members of Congress, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., asked city officials to partner with them on the name change.  

“We have received the request and are reviewing,” Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said in response to questions about the proposal. He declined to comment on DC Vote’s letter, mailed on May 30.  

Mendelson was not available to respond to questions, but recently told the Washington Post that such requests would be taken seriously, although District law requires people to be dead for two years before a street can be named after them. Mendelson indicated the council has the power to make exceptions.  

Motivation for the Chinese Embassy street switch was sparked during a Jan. 16 hearing on Capitol Hill. Former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky raised the idea while speaking before the Lantos Human Rights Commission at the Capitol Visitor Center. He suggested changing street names in front of “every embassy or every dictatorship throughout the world” to keep the pressure on governments guilty of human rights abuses.  

The proposal aligns with a campaign called Dissident Squared, launched in November 2013 by Advancing Human Rights. The advocacy group wants to work with democratic countries to rename streets in front of Iranian, Syrian, Saudi, Russian and Chinese embassies after dissidents who have been jailed or murdered in those countries.  

Wolf rallied Reps. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J. and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in addition to Norton, Pelosi and Hoyer.  

DC Vote pointed out that international human rights groups have also weighed in on the District’s struggle. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reiterated its concern that D.C. residents are denied the right to elect voting representatives to the House and Senate.  

Perry is asking D.C. to consider the request “in the context of the two hundred year denial of democracy in the District of Columbia.”

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