WASHINGTON — In 1991, a trio of junior members of the House on a bipartisan trip to Asia were encouraged by a Chinese dissident they visited in Hong Kong to make a gesture of solidarity with government opponents and victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre when they arrived in Beijing.
They quickly embraced the bold idea.
“We were all nodding at the same time,” recalled Ben Jones, then a Democratic congressman from Georgia who made the trip with John Miller, a Republican from Washington, and Nancy Pelosi, then an up-and-coming Democrat from California.
Sneaking out into the vast square where he had brutally suppressed a rebellion two years earlier, the three American visitors 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 prompted a swift police response and a diplomatic standoff — 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 to Ms. Pelosi’s long-standing activism on China. Her confrontation today is just the latest in a more than three-decade career of challenging the Chinese government on human rights and other issues. And it was another example of an era when the most powerful woman in Washington didn’t shy away from what she considered a worthy fight.
Her allies said that if anyone leaked her travel plans hoping that an angry push from the Chinese government or concerns raised by the Biden White House could dissuade her from going, they were sorely mistaken.
“They elected the wrong person,” said Representative Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, who has worked with Ms. Pelosi on human rights issues related to China and visited there with her in the past. “He is someone who cannot be intimidated. He doesn’t give in to bullies.”
While her refusal to abandon the trip in the face of Chinese threats and White House concern appeared reckless, the visit was in line with Ms. Pelosi’s deep-seated position that China must be held accountable for its stance on Tibet and Hong Kong , as well as its treatment of Uighurs and the imprisonment of political activists.
It was also typical of the California Democrat whose job puts her second in line for the presidency. She has rarely backed down from public threats from her opponents and has sometimes gone out of her way to remind them of her spine stiffness.
Ms. Pelosi, 82, who has said she will hang up after this congress, is also looking to her legacy, one that includes an unapologetic stance toward China.
Since the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Ms. Pelosi has insisted that the economic benefits of a U.S. relationship with China could not be allowed to overshadow its human rights record or stave off sharp criticism from national leaders.
“If we don’t talk about human rights in China because of economic concerns, then we lose the moral authority to talk about human rights anywhere else in the world,” Ms. Pelosi said last year, on the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
He has regularly promoted legislation on behalf of Hong Kong and Tibet. hosted the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, at the Capitol. and called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. He traveled repeatedly with Mr. Clinton in his bid to give and keep favorable trade status for China, a policy he said could improve human rights in China through international engagement. Ms. Pelosi strongly disagreed.
“By pursuing a policy that strengthens the Chinese government, the United States is actually supporting the containment of the Chinese people, their hopes and aspirations,” Ms. Pelosi said in 1997 as she took over the Clinton White House.
China noted its frequent criticism. After she called last year for a boycott of the Olympics, a State Department official accused her of spreading “lies and misinformation” and playing “despicable political games” using human rights as a pretext to “slander and defame China.”
In one opinion piece published Tuesday in the Washington Post, Ms. Pelosi reminded readers of her trip to Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.
“Since then,” Ms. Pelosi wrote, “Beijing’s abysmal record on human rights and disregard for the rule of law has continued as President Xi Jinping tightens his grip on power.”
Allies noted that Ms. Pelosi’s position 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 chairman.
“This is a continuation of the work and leadership he’s been doing for 33 years,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, Ms. Pelosi’s former chief of staff, who is now a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Committee.
Given her history with China, her decision to continue her trip despite warnings from both Chinese and US officials did not come as a surprise to her fellow lawmakers.
“This is not something that came out of the blue,” Mr McGovern said. “This was an issue for her every day that she was in the United States Congress. She is an outstanding defender of human rights.”
She also won strong support from Republicans – usually her fiercest critics – who praised her decision to go ahead with her plan to visit Taiwan and said she had no choice after the Chinese government threatened retaliation if she arrived in Taipei.
“I’m going 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 Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership. . “For us to emphasize that Taiwan is important to democracy, that Taiwan is important to our national security, that Taiwan is important to our economy is a good point,” he added. “And I suspect that others will follow Speaker Pelosi’s lead.”
Privately, some Democrats protested the timing of the visit, which had been postponed since April after the speaker tested positive for the coronavirus. They said the furor was distracting from some Democratic successes in Congress and appeared to reflect a desire to dominate the world stage as her time as speaker comes to an end.
But most familiar with Ms. Pelosi’s views on China said they had nothing to do with the politics of the moment.
“She was very strong on human rights,” said Mr. Jones, a former TV actor who served two terms in the House and still has the protest banner he and Ms. Pelosi unfurled in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago at his home in Virginia. “I totally respect her for that, because it takes courage.”