There’s a U.S.-China diplomatic show-down looming, but it’s not over cyber issues, the South China Sea, or even North Korea. Instead, the latest spat is a combination of human rights concerns and U.S. election-year politicking. The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved a bill that would see the plaza in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. renamed after Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Chinese dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
The bill was sponsored by Senator Ted Cruz, currently one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Cruz has been pushing to officially rename the plaza “Liu Xiaobo Plaza” since 2014, when the House Appropriations Committee folded that requirement into a State Department funding bill. In a statement released after the Senate approved the measure on Friday, Cruz’s Senate office said that “Dr. Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, have been imprisoned for seeking basic human rights denied to them by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).” The move is designed both to “express solidarity” with Liu and to raise awareness of human rights abuses against him and others in China.
The statement compared the current bill to the 1984 renaming of the street in front of the Soviet embassy “Sakharov Plaza,” after dissident Andrei Sakharov. In a 2014 editorial supporting similar Liu Xiaobo Plaza legislation, the Washington Post quoted Sakharov’s daughter as saying that naming a plaza after her father “definitely made a difference.”
China, however, is furious over the move. Xinhua’s story reminded readers immediately the Liu is “a convicted Chinese criminal,” in prison for “violating Chinese law and engaging in activities aimed at overthrowing the government” (the website of the Nobel Prize, meanwhile, says Liu was “sentenced for the crime of speaking”).
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said Tuesday that the Senate bill “violates the basic norms of international relations” and is “firmly oppose[d]” by China. He called on Congress to halt the approval process, and on the White House to “put an end to this political farce.” If the bill becomes law, Hong warned of “severe consequences.”
The move would saddle the Chinese Embassy with the new address of “1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” according to the legislation.
Meanwhile, a White House spokesman said that U.S. President Barack Obama’s advisers would recommend that he veto the bill, according to the Wall Street Journal. The bill still has to be passed by the House of Representatives before it would head to Obama’s desk.
Cruz, however, is ready for the White House to quash the bill. As quoted in the statement on his website, Cruz argued that “the U.S. Senate should not be aiding and abetting the oppression of the Chinese government.” Cruz also cited the example of former President Ronald Reagan’s famous exhortation for the Soviet leadership to “tear down” the Berlin Wall: “he didn’t listen to the voices of timidity saying, ‘Well, that’s going to embarrass the Soviets.’”
In the U.S. political system, Congress traditionally has been far more vocal on human rights concerns than the White House, which actually has to do the difficult work of forging a working relationship with China. That dynamic has been evident since the violent crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 – Congress clamored for harsher sanctions and more proactive measures than the George H.W. Bush administration was willing to condone (meanwhile, the American public, according to a January 1990 survey from the New York Times, showed a slight preference for the White House approach – avoiding outspoken criticism for the sake of good relations with China).
This dynamic can be politically devastating for a president, which is likely the point from the opposition’s point of view – overriding Congressional legislation supporting human rights in China is never going to be a popular move, no matter how diplomatically wise it may be. Bush was haunted by his move in the 1992 election, when opponent Bill Clinton famously accused him of cozying up to the “butchers of Beijing.” The stage is set for Cruz and other Republicans to similarly criticize Obama should he actually veto the “Liu Xiaobo Plaza” legislation, giving them another angle of attack against the Democratic Party as the November elections draw closer.