The embassy of the People’s Republic of China may soon bear the name of one of the regime’s worst enemies. A bill has called for the embassy’s cul-de-sac hideaway to be renamed after Liu Xiaobo, a dissident and fierce critic of the communist state who is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” The PRC embassy moved into its current secluded location—for now still known as 3505 International Place, NW—in 2008.
The legislation, introduced by Senator Ted Cruz, was approved by the Senate unanimously on February 12. The White House is expected to veto the move, citing its possible diplomatic repercussions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the proposal has been anything but calm: the official spokesperson called the notion a “political farce” that “violates the basic norms of international relations.”
The move is not unprecedented. In 1984, Congress renamed the stretch of 16th Street hosting the Soviet Embassy (today the Russian Ambassador’s residence) after Nobel prize-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov, even over the State Department’s objections. Sakharov expressed ambivalence at the time, but today his stepdaughter says that the symbolic move “definitely made a difference” in raising the prominence of human rights in the public mind. Last year, a Senate resolution called for the new Cuban embassy to get its own special address, in honor of slain rights activist Oswaldo Payá. And ironically enough, the Chinese Communists themselves have done the same thing before, when during the Cultural Revolution they lashed out at their erstwhile Soviet allies by renaming the Soviet embassy’s location Anti-Revisionism Street.
Who is the man whom the Communist Party so desperately wants to keep off its stationery? Liu Xiaobo is one of the most prominent and influential Chinese dissidents today, a man whose political consciousness has been formed by intense study, international experience, fearless activism, and four stints of captivity.
Liu grew up in the countryside during the days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where his parents, who were teachers and thus considered intellectuals by the regime, had been sent for manual labor. The fragmentary and self-directed education that Liu managed to cobble together for himself there instilled in him a taste for intellectual freedom. After his university studies he became well-known as an incisive and acerbic social critic and professor, and had the opportunity to travel widely as a teacher and speaker.
A major turning point in his life came with the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. Liu, who had been working as a visiting professor in New York, decided to return to Beijing in order to make his voice heard at the historic juncture. He participated in a hunger strike, and on the fateful night of the massacre, intervened between the soldiers and students, managing to secure safe evacuation for many of the protestors.
In the aftermath, he was fired from his teaching position at Beijing Normal University, imprisoned for two years, and found guilty of “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.” He would never again be allowed to publish or speak in public in China. In the next decade he would serve a further nine months under house arrest and three years of re-education through labor for his articles and advocacy in favor of rights and an official reassessment of the government’s actions at Tiananmen Square. Undaunted, Liu continued to publish critical articles. He was also an important backer of Charter 08, a political manifesto inspired by the Czechoslovak Charter 77, signed by, among others, Václav Havel. In 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment on grounds of “inciting subversion of state power.” His imprisonment is ongoing.
According to his biographer Yu Jie, also a former political prisoner, what sets Liu apart from other dissidents is his aspiration to propose a positive alternative to the current Chinese regime, not just to criticize it. Liu’s consistency in refusing easy criticism is almost shocking. In a 1994 essay on the Tiananmen Square movement entitled “That Holy Word, ‘Revolution’,” he entered into a sustained critique of what he considered the immature and superficial aspects of the movement for democratic revolution. “In Communist China, there is no word more sacred or richer in righteous indignation and moral force than ‘revolution’… Contemporary Chinese are too enthusiastic about revolution, too worshipful of revolution. Each and every one of us is both victim and carrier of that word, revolution,” he explains. Fearing that this attitude of revolutionary righteousness leads to lawlessness and vengeance, Liu emphasizes the importance of gradual, stable, and legitimate change based on solid political principles and civil institutions. These concerns are reminiscent of the principles of Charter 08, which calls for a new constitution based on human rights, popular sovereignty, republicanism, the separation of powers, the rule of law, elections, and minority rights.
Also interesting is Liu’s attitude toward the West. The liberal political traditions of the West had long been a touchstone for the activist, to the point that he identified modernization with thorough Westernization. During his time in New York he realized that he had been idolizing an abstraction. “My tendency to idealize Western civilization arises from my nationalistic desire to use the West in order to reform China. But this has led me to overlook the flaws of Western culture,” he explained in his epilogue to Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals. He also reflected on the universal aspects of Western philosophical thought: “To be ‘Westernized’ in a true sense requires one to adopt a critical attitude toward everything—the West as well as China. It also requires concern for the fate of all humanity and for the incompleteness of the individual person.” Interestingly, speaking as a self-avowed secular thinker, he even deplored as “lamentable” the decay of the transcendent aspect of Western religious and philosophical consciousness: “By its own hand, humanity in the West has killed the sacred values of its heart.”
Liu’s universally critical mind and his defense of government based on universal rights and stable civic institutions reveal an outlook that is truly cosmopolitan. In this sense there will be no drastic change in meaning if Congress successfully changes the name of International Place to Liu Xiaobo Plaza.