Elliott Abrams: A Sharp Way to Boost Human Rights in China

A protester holds a candle next to a portrait of jailed Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo during a candlelight vigil demanding his release , outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, November 2, 2010. Elliott Abrams writes that we cannot free Liu and other Chinese dissidents, but we can show we remember they are suffering. Bobby Yip/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The Russian Embassy in Washington is on a street called Sakharov Plaza, so named in 1984 in honor of the great Russian scientist and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

Honoring great men such as Sakharov by and renaming streets and plazas anywhere after them is a fitting tribute—and also a lovely way to show our support for the cause of human rights.

But renaming streets and plazas where the embassies of repressive regimes sit is an even better action, more supportive of the cause and sending a direct message to the tyrannies.

A great current example is the effort to rename the plaza in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington as "Liu Xiaobo Plaza." Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and has been in prison since 2009, serving an 11-year sentence.

Here's what the Nobel committee said about him in 2010:

Sentenced for the Crime of Speaking

Liu Xiaobo was born on the 28th of December 1955. As a young man he studied literature and philosophy, and worked as a literary critic and university lecturer in Beijing. He took a doctorate in 1988, after which he was a guest lecturer at universities in Europe and the USA.

Liu Xiaobo took part in the student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. For that he was sentenced to two years in prison. Later he served three years in a labour camp for having criticised China's one-party system.

For over twenty years, Liu has fought for a more open and democratic China. He demands that the Chinese authorities comply with Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which lays down that the country's citizens enjoy "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration".

In 2008, Liu was a co-author of Charta 08, a manifesto which advocates the gradual shifting of China's political and legal system in the direction of democracy.

He was arrested in December 2008, and sentenced a year later to eleven years' imprisonment for undermining the state authorities. Liu has constantly denied the charges. "Opposition is not the same as undermining", he points out.

Senator Ted Cruz recently explained in Time magazine where things stand now:

The Sakharov case is a worthy model for the sort of support the United States government could be showing for Dr. Liu today, and Congress took the first step in February when the Senate passed the legislation that I introduced to rename International Plaza in front of the PRC Embassy "Liu Xiaobo Plaza."

Swift passage by the House could have it on President Obama's desk this month. He should sign the legislation and then follow up by naming December 28th, Liu's birthday, "National Liu Xiaobo Day."

Unfortunately, President Obama's administration insists that such steps are too provocative and that they know better how to get political prisoners released. In fact, astonishingly, Mr. Obama has threatened to veto the Plaza legislation in deference to the PRC's objections.

Whether he would in the end do so or not, what Obama does is one thing; what Congress does is another. It is incomprehensible that the House seems afraid to follow the Senate and afraid of offending China's delicate sensibilities; it is also incomprehensible and indefensible that the person who is bottling the resolution up in committee is a Republican, Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

What can he be thinking? That it's too provocative—right after the Chinese diss the president upon his arrival in China and refuse the usual stairs and red carpet?

Too provocative, while they are increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea?

Too provocative, when Sakharov Plaza was renamed right at the height of the Cold War, in 1984, without damage to U.S.-Soviet relations?

On one side of this issue is the Senate, which acted unanimously; on the other is the Chinese regime and Barack Obama. Normally Chaffetz would quickly realize which side he ought to be on, and he should stop carrying water for the regime in Beijing.

The courage of men such as Liu, and the many other Chinese dissidents, is astonishing. We cannot free them from prison today, nor can we make the People's Republic of China into a democracy—though with men of the courage shown by Liu and others, that will happen sooner or later.

So what can we, in the United States, do? Give them our moral support. Show that we remember them and know what they are suffering. Support their cause of respect for human rights.

There's a wonderful way to do that now, and Sakharov Plaza shows the way: The House must pass the bill to rename International Plaza as Liu Xiaobo Plaza, to honor the imprisoned Nobel Laureate—and all who peacefully struggle for freedom and human rights in China.

Rep. Chaffetz should stop blocking the legislation and stop putting the concerns of China's rulers ahead of the rights of China's people. And if he does not move, Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy should take a hand.

Don't let the Chinese, or Mr. Chaffetz, run out the clock this year.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elliott Abrams: A Sharp Way to Boost Human Rights in China | Opinion