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China Calls Congress ‘Really Absurd’ for Renaming the Street Address of Its Embassy

The Chinese Embassy in Washington blasted members of Congress for voting to rename its street address after an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in what was a clear -- if somewhat juvenile -- attempt to needle Beijing for its human rights record.

"This amendment is really absurd," embassy spokesman Geng Shuang told Foreign Policy in a statement.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to rename the street of the Chinese Embassy "Liu Xiaobo Plaza" after the activist and writer sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for inciting subversion against the Chinese state. Liu contributed to the drafting of Charter 08, a petition urging China to uphold basic human rights and bring an end to one-party rule. China maintains Liu was lawfully prosecuted in accordance with the country's laws.

"This attempt driven by some personal interests runs counter to the joint efforts by and interests of the vast majority of peoples in both China and the United States to pursue a win-win cooperative partnership between our two countries," said Geng.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the author of the amendment, said China needed to be reminded that Washington stands firm against gross human rights violations wherever they might occur.

"Renaming the street 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," said Wolf.  

It's unclear if the bill will win support in the Senate, but a broad coalition of House Republicans like Wolf, and Democrats like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have backed the effort. The chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Though few in the U.S. disagree about the legitimacy of Liu's case, some question the value of openly poking China in the eye over the issue.

"This is the sort of symbolic shaming that the [People's Republic of China] and many politically conscious Chinese really dislike," Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. "Of course, what the regime did to Liu Xiaobo violated every reasonable moral standard, and this action will make some in the West feel good. But it will not speed his release by even one day."

Robert MacPherson/AFP/GettyImages

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U.S. Foreign Policy on China Hits the Streets

Call it soft power -- or, perhaps, passive-aggressive nomenclature. The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted to rename a portion of International Place N.W., on which the Chinese Embassy in Washington sits, after an imprisoned Chinese dissident.

Liu Xiaobo Plaza is the House panel's way of telling China to stop violating human rights. And to release the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia successfully offered the name change as an amendment to the 2015 State Department and foreign operations appropriation. The paragraph-long measure would require the secretary of state to change the embassy's address to No. 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza N.W. within 45 days of the bill becoming law.

Inspired by the 1980s redubbing of the plaza outside the Russian embassy after anti-Soviet activist Andrei Sakharov, the move was originally proposed in a November Wall Street Journal op-ed. In May, a bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers joined D.C. City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in asking Mayor Vincent Gray to make the change leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Confusion over who exactly owns the street delayed action.

International Place N.W. is federally owned. Changing the name will require the president's signature, not city-council approval, a spokesman for Wolf said. Still, Mendelson wants the city council to approve a resolution supporting the name change next month.

The world's only imprisoned Nobel Laureate, the 58-year-old Xiaobo is a veteran of the Tiananmen protests who's serving an 11-year sentence attributed to his authoring of the Charter 08 petition against one-party rule. At the end of May, Reuters reported that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang condemned efforts to change the street name as "provocative and ignorant behavior," adding that Xiaobo violated Chinese law and sentenced by its judiciary.

Junge, Heiko/AFP/Getty Image