It was the end of 1996. Bill Clinton had just been re-elected, and he organized an elaborate welcome reception for a foreign guest: General Chi Haotian of China. A breakfast reception was held in his honor and the Democrats loyally attended. Well, all but one attended: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
Pelosi, outraged, did not mince words:
“My objection is not to the visit of Chinese Defense Minister General Chi Haotian, but to our country giving full military honors to the person who was in operational command over the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and who directed the Chinese government’s military threats against the Taiwanese people during their elections. At the same time that President Clinton will not meet with any of the Chinese dissidents or have an official meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he has an official meeting with the person who crushed and continues to crush dissent in China and Tibet. With its actions, the Clinton administration has given great face to the hardliners in the Chinese regime. General Chi oversaw the massacre of civilians in Tiananmen Square who rallied around the symbol of our democracy, the Statue of Liberty. These people responded to our ideals, they were crushed, and now we honor those who crushed them.”
Not long thereafter, a photograph appeared showing a smiling Bill Clinton sitting with General Chi in the Oval Office. The liberal civil-libertarian Nat Hentoff took the photo to Pelosi to inquire about her thoughts: “‘Oh, my God,’ she said, ‘I thought I would never see the day. The president won’t see the Dalai Lama, he won’t see the pro-democracy dissidents, he won’t see Harry Wu, but he did see this thug. It’s absolutely appalling.'”
By placing trade with China over criticism of its human rights record, Pelosi said, Clinton’s China policy had “led to crackdowns in China. You would be hard put to find a dissident to talk to in China. They’re all in prison, in labor camps or in exile. Their families have been silenced. It’s heartbreaking.”
Pelosi, Hentoff wrote, complained of “‘huge amounts of money’ being spent to legitimize the trade-over-human-rights policy. ‘Corporations allowed to do business in China lobby, make presentations and schmooze with members of Congress and journalists. Money is the biggest enemy of those of us on the other side. … A corollary obstacle to helping China’s prisoners of conscience is, as Pelosi puts it, the revolving door by which lobbyists become administration policymakers. ‘Sandy Berger,’ she notes, ‘was the point person at the Hogan & Harrison law firm for the trade office of the Chinese government. He was a lawyer-lobbyist. When he went into the Clinton administration, he was second to Tony Lake, and now he is the national security adviser.'”
The late Chinese gulag survivor Harry Wu used to call out politicians who sold out American interests and human rights for Beijing gold. In one interview, he spoke of senators who “took a stand for communist China based on family or business interests. For example, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), her husband is a board member of COSCO [The People’s Liberation Army’s Chinese Overseas Shipping Corporation] and he has other investments in China. You see, this is the kind of person [Feinstein] who is never interested in my work.” In a later article he spoke of “Sen. Mitch McConnell,” who “is one of the strongest supporters of free trade and closer ties with China. … After all, Jiang Zemin, China’s former Communist Party boss and dictator, is a close family friend of the senator’s wife, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao praised her father for building up China’s industry. Jiang Zemin, the hard-liner who took power following the Tiananmen Square massacre, is notorious for his repression of religious minorities and Tibet.”
But Wu had only the warmest of words for Pelosi, and vice-versa.
This is not the image of Nancy Pelosi with which I grew up. The Pelosi I came to recognize was the congresswoman who in 2007 flew to Syria and sat with Bashir Assad to criticize President George W. Bush at the same time that Assad was running terrorist bases whence jihadists would cross into Iraq to attack American troops — guys like Pelosi’s current House colleague Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). Those were the same terrorist bases from which ISIS would one day emerge.
I am only now learning about this earlier version of Pelosi thanks to a renewed interest in Nat Hentoff’s writings. I am not, nor will likely ever, be a fan of Pelosi. Yet it does not change the fact that at that time, on this issue, she did what was right and spoke truth to power.