WASHINGTON — In 1991, a trio of junior House members on a two-part trip to Asia were encouraged by a Chinese dissident they were visiting in Hong Kong to make a gesture of solidarity with government opponents and victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre when they reached Beijing.
They soon embraced the bold idea.
“We all nodded in agreement at the same time,” recalls Ben Jones, then a Democratic congressman from Georgia who made the trip along with John Miller, a Republican from Washington, and Nancy Pelosi, then a rising Democrat from California.
The three American visitors snuck into the huge plaza where an uprising had been brutally crushed two years earlier, and unfurled a banner provided by the dissidents and smuggled to the mainland by Mr. Jones.
“To those who died for democracy in China,” read a message embroidered in Chinese and English.
The brazen display provoked a quick police response and diplomatic tirade – though nothing on the scale of the international uproar surrounding Tuesday’s visit to Taiwan by Ms Pelosi, who is now the Speaker of the House.
But the two events are linked by Ms. Pelosi’s longstanding activism regarding China. Her current confrontation is just the latest in a career spanning more than three decades that has seen her challenge the Chinese government on human rights and other issues. And it was another example of a time when the most powerful woman in Washington didn’t shy away from what she saw as a worthy fight.
Her allies said that if anyone had leaked her trip plans in the hopes that the Chinese government’s angry pushback or the Biden White House concerns might deter her from going, they were gravely mistaken.
“They chose the wrong person,” said Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, who has worked with Ms. Pelosi on human rights issues related to China and has visited with her there in the past. “She’s someone who won’t be intimidated. She doesn’t give in to bullies.”
While her refusal to abort the trip in the face of Chinese threats and the musings of the White House seemed reckless to some, the visit was consistent with Ms Pelosi’s deeply held position that China should be held accountable for its attitude toward towards Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as the treatment of Uyghurs and the imprisonment of political activists.
It was also characteristic of the California Democrat whose job puts her second in the line of presidency. She has rarely shied away from public threats from her opponents and has at times gone out of her way to remind them of the stiffness of her spine.
Ms. Pelosi, 82, who has said she will end her speakership after this congress, is also looking at her legacy, one that includes an unabashed stance on China.
Since the administrations of Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, Ms. Pelosi has insisted that the economic benefits of a US relationship with China should not be allowed to overshadow the human rights record or deter strong criticism from national leaders.
“If we don’t speak out for human rights in China because of economic concerns, we will lose the moral authority to talk about human rights elsewhere in the world,” Ms Pelosi said last year, on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the Massacre Tiananmen Square.
She has regularly promoted legislation on behalf of Hong Kong and Tibet; host of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, on Capitol Hill; and called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. She repeatedly broke with Mr. Clinton in his drive to give and maintain China’s privileged trade status, a policy he believes could improve human rights in China through international engagement. Mrs. Pelosi strongly disagreed.
“By following policies that support the Chinese government, the United States is effectively supporting the containment of the Chinese people, their hopes and aspirations,” Ms Pelosi said in 1997 when she held the Clinton White House to account.
China has noted its frequent criticism. After her call last year for an Olympic boycott, a State Department official accused her of spreading “lies and disinformation” and playing “despicable political games” by using human rights as a pretext to “defame China and to charge”.
In an op-ed published Tuesday in The Washington Post, Ms. Pelosi reminded readers of her trip to Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.
“Since then,” wrote Ms. Pelosi, “Pelosi has continued its poor human rights record and disregard for the rule of law as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power.”
Allies noted that Ms. Pelosi’s stance on China is supported not only by the Asian constituency in her San Francisco district, but also by her long tenure on the House Intelligence Committee, including a stint as chair.
“This is a continuation of the work and leadership she has done for 33 years,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, former chief of staff to Ms. Pelosi, who is now a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Given her history with China, her decision to continue her journey despite warnings from both Chinese and US officials came as no surprise to her co-legislators.
“This is not something that comes out of nowhere,” said Mr. McGovern. “This is a problem for her every day that she has been in the United States Congress. She is an extraordinary champion of human rights.”
She also received strong support from Republicans — normally her harshest critics — who praised her decision to carry out her plan to visit Taiwan and said she had no choice after the Chinese government threatened retaliation if she arrived in Taipei. .
“I’m about to use four words in a row that I haven’t used in this way before, and those four words are, ‘Speaker Pelosi was right,'” said Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, a member of the Republican leadership. . . “It is a good point to make the point that Taiwan is important for democracy, Taiwan is important for our national security and Taiwan is important for our economy,” he added. “And I suspect others will follow Speaker Pelosi’s lead.”
Privately, some Democrats complained about the timing of the visit, which had been postponed from April after the speaker tested positive for the coronavirus. They said the furore diverted attention from some Democratic successes in Congress and seemed to indicate a desire to dominate the world stage as her time as a speaker is running out.
But most familiar with Ms Pelosi’s views on China, said they had little to do with the politics of the moment.
“She was very strong on human rights,” said Mr. Jones, a former television actor who served two terms in the House and still carries the protest flag that he and Ms. Pelosi flew at his Virginia home on the Tiananmen 30 years ago. – roll out square. “I fully respect her for that, because it takes courage.”