Thirty-one years ago, a relatively new congresswoman from California surprised Chinese authorities when she unfurled a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square dedicated to the pro-democracy student activists massacred there.
Now the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is poised to travel to Taiwan during a tour of Asia nations this week, once again defying Beijing at a moment of extraordinary tension between the US and China – but also creating a host of problems for Joe Biden.
The highly anticipated diplomatic mission caps a foreign policy career defined by what she views as a defense of human rights and democratic values abroad, a posture that has made her a target of criticism in Beijing and, at times, put her at odds with leaders of both parties in Washington.
A visit by the House speaker, second in the presidential line of succession, would make Pelosi the highest-ranking US official to visit the self-governing island in a quarter-century. China, which claims Taiwan as its own province, has threatened unspecified consequences for the US should Pelosi make the trip.
Pelosi has declined to confirm a visit, citing security concerns. But a stop in Taipei is now widely expected – probably on Tuesday – and has been confirmed to media outlets by officials in the US and Taiwan. The Financial Times reported that Pelosi had been scheduled to travel to Taiwan in April but tested positive for Covid and postponed it for August.
Asked recently about her interest in traveling to Taiwan, the 82-year-old lawmaker nodded to her own background representing San Francisco, where roughly one in three residents are of Asian descent.
“We have global responsibilities, whether it comes to three things, I always say: security, economy and governance,” she told reporters at her news conference last week. “This will be part of that.”
The sharp warnings from Beijing, implying that the visit could provoke a military response from China, have Washington on high alert. The US military has made preparations to protect Pelosi during the visit, while officials scramble to interpret Beijing’s saber-rattling.
There are also serious domestic risks, as Pelosi’s party faces a difficult re-election in November with her gavel in the balance and Biden desperate to generate positive headlines about his economic agenda – not foreign troubles.
Republicans are urging Pelosi to go, and ready to accuse Democrats of bowing to Beijing if she doesn’t. The focus on Pelosi’s travel, during the House’s autumn recess, also threatens to distract from a string of Democratic legislative victories at home.
Biden is preparing to sign a bill that would spend hundreds of billions of dollars designed to give the US a manufacturing and technological edge over China. And a surprise deal with a Democratic holdout revived Biden’s economic agenda, thought to be doomed just weeks ago.
The last speaker to lead a delegation to Taiwan was the Republican Newt Gingrich in 1997. Appearing on Fox News, Gingrich said he hoped Pelosi would make the trip.
“Once it’s public, you can’t back down,” Gingrich said. “You have to stand up to the Chinese communists or they will interpret it as a sign of weakness and they’ll grow even more aggressive.”
At a press conference in July, Biden said that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Pelosi to travel. But on Monday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the defense department, said no one in the administration was seeking to change her mind about the trip. “The speaker makes her own decisions,” he said.
Pelosi has long been one of the most strident and outspoken critics of China, a position that has in the past allied her with conservatives. She opposed China’s bid to host the summer Olympics in 2008 and has pushed the US to leverage its economic power to improve human rights and labor protections in China. Her advocacy helped ensure oversight of China when it joined the World Trade Organization.
During a visit to China in 2009, Pelosi hand-delivered a letter to the then president, Hu Jintao, demanding the release of political prisoners.
“She’s not viewing Taiwan through the lens of what’s happening right now,” said Daniel Silverberg, a former foreign policy adviser to House Democratic leadership. “She’s viewing it through the lens of a 30-year history of activism.”
Silverberg said Pelosi’s tour of Asian nations was consistent with her view that Congress and the speaker have an important role to play on the world stage. In recent years, Pelosi has emerged as a world leader in her own right, meeting frequently with heads of state to discuss global challenges, the climate crisis chief among them. During the Trump years, her diplomacy took on an even greater prominence as a high-profile counterweight to the former president’s isolationism.
She recently met with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Kyiv and travelled to the Vatican where she met Pope Francis.
A possible Taiwan visit must “be seen through Pelosi’s view: this is not just symbolism,” Silverberg said. “This is a critical exercise of Congress and concomitantly US foreign policy power and the power of the moral bully pulpit.”
Pro-democracy advocates eager to see Pelosi make this trip say her long history of standing up to China makes her a reliable messenger at a delicate moment.
“The speaker is not only the highest-ranking person who can take this trip, I also think she is the right person to take this trip,” said Samuel Chu, president of the Campaign for Hong Kong, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Chu, whose father is a prominent human rights leader and met with Pelosi when she visited Hong Kong decades ago, said the 1991 trip to Tiananmen Square had been “formative and foundational” to her career.
Two years after Chinese troops with tanks crushed a pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Pelosi visited the site of the massacre alongside two other lawmakers. Standing in the square, teeming with tourists and international media, they unfurled a black banner that read: “To those who died for democracy in China.” The act surprised security officials and the lawmakers were briefly detained.
Chu said that was the beginning of decades of advocacy that has colored her view of US foreign policy, pointing to a version of the line she repeats often when asked about the subject. “If we don’t speak out against human rights violations in China for commercial reasons,” Pelosi has said, “we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere.”
Much of her diplomatic leadership has been relational, said Chu. She has forged a close relationship with the Dalai Lama, whom she presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 2019, she drew Beijing’s ire when she welcomed Hong Kong dissidents and was behind the push to confront the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang region, which the US government now officially recognizes as a genocide.
Chu sees those relationships, built over the arc of her career, as a compelling factor in her decision to visit the island.
“This has to ultimately be about the aspirations of the Taiwanese people,” Chu said. “And the only way to not cut them out is to be there and to know them and to make that a central part of US-China policymaking.”