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© 2020 Jeffrey Robertson

Renaming Chinese embassy plaza

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The US Senate Bill 2451 proposed by Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, seeks to rename the plaza outside the Chinese embassy after Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace laureate serving an 11-year prison sentence in China for state subversion. While the Bill is yet to pass the House of Reps and would be unlikely to receive the President's signature, the move has caught global media attention, as highlighted by the catchy WSJ piece with the headline: "Meet You at the Corner of Liu Xiaobo Plaza and Oppose Revisionism Street".

The resident embassy has always been a target - the focus of public attention where the domestic and foreign meet in the heart of the capital. But resident embassies are changing - rapidly.

For security reasons, most have already been moved to either more secure locations or barricaded behind fortifications and layers of security detail. Protesters are lucky to even get an image of a demonstration within clear shot of the compound's flag. 

To avert the focus of demonstrations, daily protests, and media attention, in many capitals they are moving further further and further away from traditional diplomatic quarters. Who wants to go to a protest out in the suburbs?

They are being redesigned and relocated away from centralised compounds to dispersed or shared locations, such as in office towers. Its more difficult to rename a location when its shared with five other embassies, an insurance giant, and a commercial shopping mall!

They are even disappearing altogether. Budget costs mean some states find it easier to locate embassies at diplomatic hubs, where instead of just the host country, representation and negotiation with multiple partners is possible.

Yet, the largest change is only just beginning. Digital diplomacy is bringing about the biggest changes to the resident embassy in its 500 year history. While it may not mean much to the Chinese Embassy in Washington at this stage, it is interesting to imagine what the 'focus of public attention where the domestic and foreign meet' will look like in the digital age.

Where would protests and demonstrations occur without the resident embassy? How does digital diplomacy affect public accountability? Perhaps not so significant in the context of major powers such as China and US, but definitely something to consider in the context of smaller states able to barricade, relocate, disperse, share or remove their embassy from public view.

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