Some 30 years after little-known lawmaker Nancy Pelosi unfurled a small protest flag in Tiananmen Square, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives staged a much more visible display of defiance against the Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday as she led a congressional delegation to Taiwan.
The visit marked the first time that a speaker of the US House of Representatives visited Taiwan over 25 years. Rumors of the planned trip prompted warnings of retaliation from the Chinese government and a public call from President Biden to cancel her plans.
But for Pelosi, San Francisco, there are several reasons why the provocative trip shouldn’t come as a surprise.
This fits right in with her long track record as a harsh critic of Beijing’s human rights violations. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Congress is now so high that even Republicans support her visit.
It’s also a legacy-building trip that could be the culmination of her international diplomatic efforts as she is expected to step down as Democratic leader next year. In 2018, Pelosi said she would not run for speaker after 2022, though she has most recently been tight-lipped about whether this is her last year on Capitol Hill.
China’s threat of retaliation if Pelosi visits self-regulatory Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty, may have only bolstered her resolve.
“After the threat was made, I think it was even more important for her to be there at that moment,” said Samuel Chu, founder of the Hong Kong Campaign.
At the same time, Pelosi’s own track record as a high-profile critic of the Chinese government may have had a similar effect on China, forcing it to push back harder than if a visit from a less vocal politician had.
“You have to see it in the context that the Chinese government wasn’t a fan of her, and that puts it politely,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, a longtime former Pelosi staffer who is now US-China economic cooperation commissioner. and the Safety Review Board. “They resented her leadership on a number of US-China issues: human rights, nonproliferation, and trade.”
Pelosi’s visit comes amid soaring tensions between Beijing and Taiwan. Now this “island of resilience,” as Pelosi called it in a Washington Post article, “is under threat.”
Standing up to China’s human rights abuses was one of Pelosi’s first calls in his career as a congressman, sparking numerous standoffs with Democratic and Republican US presidents over China. She has used US government tools to try to improve conditions there, such as using trade powers and countering China’s requests for the Olympics.
“This trip is part of what she has been doing all this time,” Bartholomew said. “In the early 1990s, the focus was on human rights, and it expanded into non-proliferation and trade. But she has been consistent on these issues for the past 33 years.”
In 1989, while a young MP was watching the Tiananmen Square protests and eager to do something about it, she drafted a bill to eliminate student visa requirements for Chinese students in the United States. Fearing they might face persecution at home, she quickly garnered support for the bill, author Molly Ball wrote in her biography Pelosi.
It was passed by the House and Senate thanks to Pelosi’s lobbying, but was vetoed by then President George W. Bush. The House overrode the veto. Bush persuaded the Senate not to do so, but agreed to an executive order that achieved the same thing—a future speaker’s victory.
Two years later, Pelosi and two other members of Congress staged a demonstration in Tiananmen Square in support of those who died during the demonstrations.
The three deputies eluded their official escorts and visited Tiananmen Square accompanied by American media. Armed with white roses, they unfurled a small black flag that read “To those who died for democracy in China.” Chinese officials drove the deputies out of the square.
Pelosi’s trip on Tuesday won the support of many Republicans in Congress, who are seeking to both confront China and refute the Biden administration’s exhortations that Pelosi not go.
“For decades, members of the United States Congress, including previous Speakers of the House of Representatives, have traveled to Taiwan,” a group of 26 Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), said in a statement. “This trip is in line with the US one-China policy, to which we are committed. We are also now, more than ever, committed to all elements of the Taiwan Relations Law.”