The Hill

Rename the Chinese Embassy's Address to Honor Hong Kong Hero

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai founder and owner of Apple Daily newspaper is being escorted by Correctional Service Department officers to leave the Court of Final Appeal on December 31, 2020, in Hong Kong, China. (Anthony Kwan via Getty Images)
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai founder and owner of Apple Daily newspaper is being escorted by Correctional Service Department officers to leave the Court of Final Appeal on December 31, 2020, in Hong Kong, China. (Anthony Kwan via Getty Images)

The political show trial of Jimmy Lai now underway in Hong Kong will almost certainly end in his conviction and a lengthy or even life sentence. Congress should honor his heroism in defending cherished principles of freedom by renaming the street connected to the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Washington as “Jimmy Lai Way.”

Lai’s trial, now entering its second month, is emblematic of the Chinese Communist Party’s five-year campaign to repress a city famous for its vibrant democratic and free market systems. It also reveals Lai’s extraordinary character. The pro-democracy publisher and self-made retail billionaire knowingly sacrificed his personal freedom and vast fortune in deciding to stay in his homeland to oppose the party’s consolidation of control. “If I go away,” he said in a 2020 interview, “I give up what I believe in.”

When this judicial farce ends, Lai will rank among the greatest freedom proponents of our time. He will become the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s legions of political prisoners — 1,778 in Hong Kong alone. A civic movement of rights activists, free market advocates, editors, journalists and Catholic bishops have recognized Lai’s courage. American legislators should honor Lai, too.

Several foreign embassies in Washington have seen adjacent spaces renamed for their oppressed dissidents. When Congress first acted in 1984 to honor a Soviet dissident by renaming the 16th Street site of the Soviet Embassy, the State Department objected that it could offend the embassy’s dignity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the District Council of Washington said that it could only rename a street to honor a person who had been dead for two years. Congress prevailed and the address became Andrei Sakharov Plaza.

Another plaza, at the newer Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, was designated in 2018 for the slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The District Council decided in 2022 to name a street fronting the Saudi Embassy as “Jamal Khashoggi Way,” for the murdered Washington Post columnist. Last year, Congress passed a bill to designate a stretch outside the Cuban Embassy as “Oswaldo Payá Way” in honor of the assassinated Cuban dissident.

No Washington streets have been renamed for heroes from mainland China or Hong Kong. Two past attempts failed: In 2016, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to rename the Chinese Embassy’s International Drive address to honor imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, but, after Beijing threatened “serious consequences,” advisers to then-President Obama recommended a veto because it would not help gain his release, and the House dropped the bill. Liu was paroled the following year and died two weeks later of cancer. And in 2020, Republican legislators introduced a bill that wasn’t acted on to name the same stretch of International Drive “Li Wenliang Way” for the Chinese doctor who first warned of COVID-19’s spread and was silenced, before succumbing to COVID-19 himself.

Lai is accused of being the “mastermind” of a conspiracy to destabilize Hong Kong by his support of democracy and the anti-Communist criticism in his now defunct Apple Daily newspaper. He is being tried by a panel of hand-picked judges for publishing seditious materials and “colluding with foreign forces,” under the sweeping National Security Law (NSL) of 2020. This Chinese Communist Party-imposed law is vague in defining “collusion,” making it easy to put away dissenters like Lai.

The 76-year-old Lai has pleaded not guilty and his lawyers are expected to present a strong defense in coming weeks. But the court has a 100 percent conviction rate. Hong Kong’s rule of law has been replaced by whatever the party decrees and the judicial system is rigged. Part of the evidence on collusion are Lai’s meetings — a year before the NSL became law — with prominent American officials, such as Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Then there’s the matter of key prosecution witness Andy Li. Arrested as a pro-democracy activist in 2020, Li was reportedly heard “consistently” screaming in his jail cell. A yearlong Washington Post investigation confirmed he was “mistreated,” casting doubt on his testimony’s reliability. Li was convicted and is confined to a psychiatric center, where he awaits sentencing — a sword of Damocles hanging over him when he takes the stand against Lai.

In the Sino-British Joint Declaration (registered with the United Nations), China agreed to respect Hong Kong’s separate system for 50 years after its 1997 hand-over by Britain. Freedom of speech, the press and assembly were indisputably the norms of Hong Kong’s political culture. Under this agreement, Lai’s support for democracy and freedom were legal; it is Beijing’s oppression that is illegitimate and destabilizing.

For the past three years, Lai, a Catholic convert, has spent his days behind bars in Stanley Prison bearing his cross in silent meditation, making pencil drawings of Jesus’s crucifixion for well-wishers. The libertarian Cato Institute, which awarded him its Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty last year, noted that Lai “makes no secret that his faith is central to his struggle.”

Congress should act to honor Lai in a way that would be a visible reminder of his heroism and of America’s solidarity with Hong Kong. It should redesignate the street facing Beijing’s prominent embassy building on Kalorama Circle as “Jimmy Lai Way.”

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