Some 30 years after little-known young lawmaker Nancy Pelosi unfurled a small protest flag in Tiananmen Square, the current House speaker led a much larger show of defiance against the Chinese Communist Party by leading a delegation from the Congress in Taiwan on Tuesday. .
The visit marked the first time a Speaker of the United States House has visited Taiwan in over 25 years. Rumors of the planned trip had prompted warnings of retaliation from the Chinese government and a public call from President Biden to cancel his plans.
But for Pelosi (D-San Francisco), there are several reasons the provocative trip should come as no surprise.
This fits perfectly with his long history of harsh criticism of human rights abuses in Beijing. And anti-China sentiments in Congress are currently so high that even Republicans support his visit.
It’s also a legacy-building trip that could serve as a cornerstone for her international diplomatic efforts, as she’s expected to step down as House Democratic leader next year. Pelosi, now 82, said in 2018 that she would not appear as a speaker after 2022, though she recently asked if that was her last year on Capitol Hill.
The threat of retaliation from China if Pelosi goes ahead with his plan to travel to self-regulating Taiwan – over which Beijing claims sovereignty – may have only strengthened his resolve.
“Once the threat was made, I think it was even more important in his mind to be there at the time,” said Samuel Chu, founder of the Campaign for Hong Kong.
At the same time, Pelosi’s own record as a high-level critic of the Chinese government may have had a similar effect on China, causing it to push back more strongly than it would have if a politician less vocal was planning the visit.
“You have to see it in the context that the Chinese government hasn’t been a fan of theirs, and that’s politely saying that,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, a longtime former Pelosi employee who is now a member of the ‘US-China Economic and Security. Revision committee. “They criticized him for his leadership on a number of issues concerning US-China relations: human rights, non-proliferation and trade.”
Pelosi’s visit comes as tensions have risen dramatically between Beijing and Taiwan. Now this “island of resilience,” as Pelosi called it in a Washington Post opinion piece, “is under threat.”
Resisting human rights abuses in China was one of the first signal calls of Pelosi’s congressional career, sparking numerous confrontations with US presidents — Democrats and Republicans alike — over China. She has used the tools of the US government to try to improve conditions there, such as leveraging trade authority and opposing China’s demands to host the Olympics.
“This trip is part of what she’s been doing since the beginning,” Bartholomew said. “In the early 1990s, the focus was on human rights, and it extended to non-proliferation and trade. But she has been consistent on these issues for the past 33 years.
In 1989, as Pelosi watched the protests in Tiananmen Square and was eager to do something about it, she drafted a bill to remove student visa requirements for Chinese students in the United States. Fearing they would be persecuted at home, she quickly gained his support for the bill, author Molly Ball wrote in the “Pelosi” biography.
It passed the House and Senate on lobbying by Pelosi, but was vetoed by then-President George HW Bush. The House overruled the veto. Bush convinced the Senate not to, but accepted an executive order that accomplished the same thing – a victory for the future president.
Two years later, Pelosi and two other members of Congress held a rally in support of Tiananmen Square for those who died in the protests.
The three lawmakers escaped from their official escorts in Beijing and toured the square – accompanied by US media. Armed with white roses, they unfurled a small black flag that read: “To those who died for democracy in China.” Chinese authorities have chased lawmakers out of the way.
Pelosi’s trip on Tuesday drew support from many congressional Republicans, who are eager to stand up to China and push back against warnings from the Biden administration that Pelosi should not go.
“For decades, members of the United States Congress, including former Speakers of the House, have visited Taiwan,” said a group of 26 GOP senators, including Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, in a statement. “This trip is consistent with the United States’ one-China policy to which we are committed. We are also committed now, more than ever, to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Act.”