When Chinese officials chased Nancy Pelosi out of Tiananmen Square 31 years ago, the incident launched a surprising foreign policy approach that has pitted her against presidents of both parties and at times aligned her with conservatives.
Now, she wants to bookend her career on the world stage with a trip to Taiwan — whether the White House likes it or not.
The speaker’s strong progressive streak on global affairs dates back to her tenure atop the House Intelligence Committee and the panel that controls the State Department’s budget. She voted against the 2002 Iraq war authorization, while her Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer supported it. But she has also talked tough when it comes to what she sees as a defense of democratic ideals and human rights, pushing the Obama administration to strike Syria after its government used chemical weapons in 2013.
Pelosi’s hawkish independent streak, though, is best encapsulated by a decades-long antagonism of China that’s come to define her time in public service. In an interview this week, Pelosi said she views her goals in U.S. foreign policy as threefold: security, economic interests, and “honoring our values.”
“If you cannot stand up for human rights in China because of commercial interests, you lose all moral authority to speak out for it in any place,” Pelosi said in an interview this week.
She’s giving no indication that she’ll bow to the Biden administration’s resistance to her planned Taiwan visit next month — a show of support as the self-governing island faces the threat of a full-scale invasion by Beijing. It’s vintage Pelosi.
“This has been going back since Tiananmen Square,” Pelosi said of China’s malign behavior. “They promised one country, two systems — look what they did in Hong Kong. They made their own problem with Taiwan. If they had one country, two systems, they’d have something to sell.”
Pelosi has declined to publicly address her possible travel to Taiwan, citing security risks. But her allies say such a trip would be a legacy play for the 82-year-old, whose posture underscores the West’s evolution when it comes to the myriad national security and economic threats China poses, which Pelosi has warned about since her earliest days in Congress.
“The country’s view of China is changing dramatically, and her view reflects” where the U.S. is headed, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who served in the House with Pelosi for 14 years, including in GOP leadership.
Pelosi is winning backers from across the ideological spectrum for her push to visit Taiwan, despite the Biden administration’s warnings and Beijing’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric warning her to stay away. Her boosters on the matter include former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who traveled to the island in 1997 when he served as speaker.
“If we can allow the Chinese to dictate who can visit Taiwan and who cannot, then we have already ceded Taiwan to the Chinese,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who also served with Pelosi in the House and recently led a congressional delegation visit to Taiwan.
A Pelosi trip to Taiwan would be much more significant than a typical congressional visit. As speaker, she’s second in line to the presidency, and her posture toward China has long irked Beijing — from her support for pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square to her vocal condemnations of China’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and its genocide against Uyghur Muslims.
A spokesperson for China’s defense ministry released a statement this week vowing that “the Chinese military will never sit idly by, and it will definitely take strong actions to thwart any external force’s interference.” The spokesperson also suggested Pelosi’s trip would be a “scheme” to support “Taiwan independence,” though Pelosi said last week that the question of independence is up to the Taiwanese people. (Beijing views Taiwan as part of China, and the U.S. has abided by that via its so-called “one-China policy.”)
China’s grown more direct in its regional threats in recent days, stepping up its aggression in the South China Sea and its military provocations toward Taiwan. Against that backdrop, Pelosi’s potential trip has prompted deep concern from the Biden administration.
But even as she declines to address the matter in public, Pelosi is cobbling together a trip invitation to a list of lawmakers from both parties.
From Tiananmen to Taiwan
Beijing has long viewed Pelosi as persona non grata, beginning with her support for China’s human-rights and pro-democracy movements in the late 20th century. A 1998 article in the Californian’s hometown newspaper described her as “a voice in the global wilderness” on China.
Pelosi had only been in Congress for two years when the Chinese government in 1989 moved to suppress mass demonstrations in and around Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square, forcibly removing protesters and executing hundreds.
Just days after the massacre, Pelosi celebrated the House’s unanimous passage of a resolution she helped lead to condemn China’s actions. She later clashed with then-President George H.W. Bush, who vetoed her bill aimed at shielding Chinese students studying abroad in the U.S.
Two years after the killings, she joined a bipartisan visit to Tiananmen Square where she unfurled a banner emblazoned with the words “to those who died for democracy in China.” Chinese police officers quickly moved to break up the protest and detained journalists who were covering and filming the move.
“We’ve been told now for two days [in private meetings with Chinese officials] that there is no prohibition on freedom of speech in China,” Pelosi was quoted saying at the time. “Tiananmen Square is a magnet for us. There is no way we could come here without being drawn to the square.”
At the same time, Pelosi helped lead a push to condition China’s trade status on its human-rights record. It was the first of several times throughout her career that she’d take on her own party on U.S.-China relations — including former President Bill Clinton, who resisted calls to downgrade China’s trade status and believed that expanding those ties would spur social progress in China.
Twenty years after criticizing Clinton’s policy of “engagement” with China, she helped sink one of then-President Barack Obama’s top intelligence picks over the nominee’s past remarks that seemed to justify the Tiananmen Square massacre, Newsweek reported.
‘Always had a respect’
Throughout that time, before ascending to her party’s leadership in the chamber, she was the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat and led the Appropriations Committee subpanel that oversees the State Department budget. There she was among the first to sound the alarm about China’s efforts to prop up authoritarian regimes.
“They were — administrations knew it — transferring dangerous technology to rogue countries. Not only the technology, but also delivery systems. And no administration would ever have them pay a price for that,” Pelosi told POLITICO this week.
Long before she called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — one the U.S. actually implemented — she was publicly urging then-President George W. Bush to consider the same for the 2008 Beijing Olympics amid China’s crackdowns in Tibet. And in 2019, she welcomed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists to the Capitol, prompting a visceral response from China.
“China watchers, including those on the right, have always had a respect for Pelosi on China issues,” particularly on human rights, said Eric Sayers, a top foreign policy aide to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who traveled with him to Taiwan in 2016.
Sayers added that Pelosi shouldn’t put much stock into China’s threats over the potential trip, pointing to Beijing’s long track record of vowing consequences for U.S. actions but rarely following through.
In fact, now that the difference of opinion between Pelosi and the White House has spilled into public view, Pelosi faces additional pressure to take the Taiwan trip in order to avoid the impression that China is dictating U.S. policy.
Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that if Pelosi backs away from the trip, it would represent a “victory” for China. Some U.S. officials are pushing her to postpone the trip to later this year, after China’s Communist Party leaders convene for their annual meetings.
Pelosi’s muscular stance toward China over the years hasn’t come without criticism. Just this week, former CNN Beijing bureau chief Mike Chinoy wrote in an op-ed that Pelosi was the reason he got arrested while covering her protest in Tiananmen Square in 1991. He wrote that her gestures were “designed to poke China’s communist rulers in the eye — regardless of the consequences,” and questioned her intent in planning the Taiwan trip now.
“Unlike her appearance in Tiananmen Square in 1991 … if the situation escalates now, it will be the people of Taiwan — and potentially any American service members flying her there — who will be left to face the consequences,” Chinoy added.
And critics accused Pelosi of “dodging” human-rights issues during a 2009 visit to China, though she was still active on that front in Washington. Pelosi said at the time that the purpose of the trip was to discuss cooperation on environmental protections and climate change, adding: “Protecting the environment is a human rights issue.”
During that trip, she also hand-delivered a letter to China’s president calling for the immediate release of political prisoners.