March 19, 2009
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in a familiar position last week [March 2009], rising in the well of the House to denounce China’s human rights record as she has on dozens of occasions — this time to decry the “hell on earth” the regime has created in Tibet since exiling the Dalai Lama 50 years ago.
Since the early 1990s, when freshman Rep. Pelosi attracted attention by raising a pro-democracy banner in Tiananmen Square, she’s crusaded against China’s policies toward Tibet, Darfur and its homegrown democratic movements. Chinese leaders have returned the favor, ridiculing Pelosi as an “ill-tempered” and misinformed “twister” of the truth and a hypocritical chief of “the moral police.”
Pelosi’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much in the past two decades, but her situation has. She now finds herself in the awkward position of hammering China on human rights while pushing through trillions in spending packages that rely on massive purchases of U.S. debt by the cash-hoarding Chinese government.
The precariousness of Pelosi’s position was driven home by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Less than 24 hours after Pelosi’s floor speech, he told the world press he was “worried” about the impact of the U.S. deficit on the value of billions in treasuries held by Beijing.
“Nancy Pelosi’s predicament with China embodies the larger U.S. predicament with China,” said Nina Hachigian, senior vice president at the left-of-center Center for American Progress Action Fund and co-author of a recent analysis of U.S.-China relations.
“On one hand, there’s this conflict on human rights; on the other hand, there’s this tremendous interdependence,” she added. “We need their help on the economic crisis, global warming, North Korea and a host of other issues. And in many ways, they are being as helpful as many of our allies, especially when they passed a stimulus of the magnitude that [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner has demanded. So Pelosi will have to balance that.”
So far, Pelosi, whose San Francisco district contains one of the largest Chinese-American populations of any in the country, has shown little sign of softening her stance, at least publicly.
“The speaker will continue to speak out on the human rights situation in China,” said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. “As the speaker has said many times, if we do not speak out for human rights in China and Tibet, then we have lost all moral authority to speak out for it other places.”
And sources tell POLITICO that the speaker objected to Chas Freeman’s appointment to head the National Intelligence Council, in part because she wasn’t confident of his support for dissenters in Tibet and China at large.
Yet people close to Pelosi see a subtle shift. She won’t back down on her core commitment to democratization in the country, they say, but she’s also not looking to pick new fights with China’s leaders — or with the Obama administration as it seeks to strengthen U.S.-China relations.
“Bill Clinton campaigned saying he was going to make human rights in China an issue, and when he took office, he adopted a more pragmatic approach,” said a person close to Pelosi who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think she understands that this is likely to happen under President Obama as well.”
Speaking on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show” last week [March 2009], Pelosi made a point of saying she had no problem with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to downplay human rights differences with Chinese leaders during her first official trip to the region last month [February 2009].
Pelosi said it wasn’t fair to expect Clinton to “only ... talk about human rights,” at the expense of issues such as the economy or global warming.
“I think that’s what the secretary was saying — I had complete comfort level with what she said,” Pelosi added. “We all have our roles. And I have, in my essence of my being, that I — for 20 years they have been saying to me, peaceful evolution. If you just be patient, there will be human rights and respect for another view in China. It hasn’t happened. And that’s really sad.”
China’s leaders have become accustomed to the good cop/bad cop roles played by the White House and Congress, respectively, said Cheng Li, research director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. But Pelosi’s public comments pose a serious risk to the relationship, he says.
“Our relationship with China is so complicated; we should not use a very ideological way to approach that, and sometimes we do need to be flexible and show respect,” he said. “You don’t want to create the anger among the next generation of Chinese — that America wants to put China down no matter what.”
But the economic crisis has removed one major source of conflict between congressional leaders and China — at least for the moment. Last year, the House and Senate were moving forward with legislation punishing China for fixing its currency, a controversial practice which hurts U.S. exporters trying to sell goods in China.
“The world economic mess has really dampened the currency issue — the enthusiasm to push it is less acute now,” said Hachigian. “Pelosi has that going for her.”