FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2020, file photo, people wearing masks attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who was…
FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2020, photo, people in Hong Kong attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded for warning about the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

American lawmakers are promoting legislation to change the name of the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington to honor Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who died of COVID-19 after Beijing silenced his attempts to warn the world about the coronavirus.

“I am honored to introduce this legislation to rename the street in front the Chinese Embassy after Dr. Li,” said U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming when she offered the bill in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

“May this serve as a constant reminder to the world and to the Chinese government that truth and freedom will prevail, that we will not forget the bravery of Dr. Li, and that the Chinese Communist Party will be held accountable for the devastating impact of their lies."

A companion bill was introduced in the Senate on the same day. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said Li is regarded as a “hero to the Chinese people.”

“Chairman Xi [Jinping] can try to claim Dr. Li as the [Communist] Party’s own martyr, but the Chinese people know that it was Dr. Li’s selfless work and voice that the party sought to silence,” Sasse said in a written statement.

Naming the street outside the embassy after Li, he said, “will draw a glaring contrast between the cruelty and lies of the Chinese Communist Party and the decency and compassion of the Chinese people.”

Li, an eye doctor who practiced at Wuhan Central Hospital, warned some of his medical school colleagues at the end of December that a SARS-like phenomenon appeared to be on the horizon. He was summoned by local authorities for sounding the alarm.

It has since emerged that authorities issued official documents around that time ordering that no one other than designated government officials talk about the coronavirus.

At the time, China had not acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the disease – to be named COVID-19 only later – and doctors treating patients with the disease were discouraged from wearing protective equipment. Li contracted the disease and died on February 7.

According to Chinese media reports, three other doctors at Wuhan Central Hospital had also succumbed to COVID-19 as of early March.

Not the first attempt to rename street

This is not the first attempt to rename the street outside the Chinese Embassy. There was a proposal in 2017 to name the street for dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who died while in detention in a Chinese hospital that year.

Similarly, the street outside the then-Soviet embassy was renamed in 1984 in honor of prominent dissident Andrei Sakharov, a renowned Russian physicist and dissident who suffered years of persecution at the hands of Soviet authorities.

In an editorial advocating for the name change in honor of Liu Xiaobo, The Washington Post argued that while the Sakharov name change had raised tensions with the Soviet Union, “it also sent a strong message to Soviet diplomats and beyond that Sakharov and activists like him were not forgotten.”

Similarly, the editorial said: “each time a Chinese diplomat entered or left the embassy, he or she would confront Mr. Liu’s legacy – and maybe spare a thought for the hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists currently detained by the Communist Party. This should be impetus enough for the change [of the name of the street].”

Earlier this week, deputy U.S. national security adviser Matthew Pottinger said Li had embodied the true spirit of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which was marked by patriotic calls for cultural and social reforms aimed at strengthening China in a spiritual and fundamental sense.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Chinese Embassy and its ambassador appear to be busy countering criticism over Beijing’s delay in reporting the scale and deadliness of the coronavirus outbreak. Ambassador Cui Tiankai made his case in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday under the title “Blaming China will not end this pandemic.”

The embassy’s website also featured stories about China’s Anhui and Liaoning provinces sending medical supplies to the U.S. states of Maryland and Utah, with signs touting “Anhui loves Maryland.”

Elsewhere in the world, there are signs China’s diplomatic overtures have run into at least a temporary dead end. Sweden recently closed the last of the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, and Sweden’s second-largest city called off its sister city ties with Shanghai.
 

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